The Rocket is a tour of the jungle floor of Laos under a tangled canopy of plot points.
Born Bad Luck
Our tour guide is Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a boy of 9 or 10. His family and community regard him as cursed. The first-born of a pair of twins is said to be cursed and is usually killed, according to the horrific lore in an introductory scene. But because Ahlo’s younger brother died at birth, his mother kept him instead.
Ahlo is not evil, or even particularly “bad.” He’s just a 9-year-old boy. But when bad things happen, he manages to be blamed for them. You could say he lives down to his curse.
Ahlo and his family are economic refugees. Or rather, they become refugee soon after we meet them. They learn, from the village loudspeaker and from a corporate-ese presentation given at a town hall, that their village will be submerged when the new dam starts to fill. They are promised houses elsewhere and they dutifully evacuate. Ahlo’s mother dies en route. Ahlo’s curse is blamed, of course. When they arrive, the only houses are on a mocking billboard promising modernity, later. In the meantime, they are given the “gift” of scraps and junk with which to build temporary shelter.
Meet James Brown
A nine-year-old boy can take a situation like this in stride. He makes a few friends in the new camp. One is a girl his own age (Loungnam Kaosainam) who lost her mother to malaria. Another is an gaunt man in a purple suit who calls himself James Brown (Thep Phongam).
But Ahlo’s curse follows him. Without meaning to, he starts a fire at a shrine. And in helping “James Brown” he causes a power outage for everyone else in the village. At one point James Brown, an admitted misfit, says “I’m the second-most-hated person in this camp.”
There is not much work to be had in the camp, but risk-takers get paid to work with the many unexploded bombs and grenades that litter the countryside. James Brown is lucky to have all of his limbs. Some of his colleagues are missing arms and legs. At least they have jobs.
The first half of The Rocket is a frank tour of poverty in Laos. The bad life is made bittersweet by the innocent perspective of a boy unfairly singled out for extra punishment and blame. The characters may be a little broadly written and unprofessionally acted, but you get a sense that what you’re watching is authentic, if not literally true.
Mid-way through, the film introduces the subplot that provides the film its title. Added to the misery of the refugee camp is an unseasonable drought. The locals have a tradition of holding a build-your-own-rocket competition whenever there is a drought. The best rocket will appease the gods and bring rain. The winner also gets a cash prize, plus the respect of everyone in the village, plus closure over the death of one’s mother, stability in one’s fragile friendships, and a tidy bow at the end of any all of one’s plot threads.
I was not a fan of Slumdog Millionaire and I’m not a fan of The Rocket. These films (and others like them — The First Grader also comes to mind) don’t hold back in revealing the poverty and brutal conditions in the slums of Mumbai, the economic shantytowns of Laos, or under the boot of imperial occupiers in Kenya. They convince us that that life under these conditions is inescapable and hopeless.
But by the end, these films embrace a magical escape that disproves the situation’s hopelessness. Extreme poverty and political repression can be beaten! Just believe in yourself and everything will turn out fine. You don’t need fancy rocket science to build the best rocket, you just need your friends. Inescapable hopelessness is neither.
At least Horatio Alger’s characters earned their way up the ladder in a fair system that rewards hard work. But when The Rocket makes a point of showing the unfairness of the economy that displaces people without any compensation, a feel-good ending requires more than a willing suspension of disbelief; it requires cognitive dissonance.