As far as Australian feature film debuts go, The Rocket, written and directed by Kim Mordaunt, is one of the more inspiring and ambitious productions to materialise in recent years. War-torn Laos is the backdrop for Mordaunt’s feel-good tale about Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a 10-year-old boy deemed cursed by native villagers, who is determined to prove his worth.

The Rocket is a fictional comedy-drama exploring Laos’ volatile political conditions and rich indigenous folkloric culture with an entertainingly whimsical gravity. Ahlo is the village’s black sheep, considered a living omen of bad luck, who stumbles from mishap to mishap.

However, Ahlo is given an opportunity to sever himself from the village’s shackling stigma when a multinational hydro-electric dam project forces his family off their native land and towards a resettlement camp. Revelling in the captivating Laotian and Thai mountainous countryside, Ahlo encounters and befriends the pixie-like orphan, Kia, played superbly with eyes-wide open innocence by Loungnam Kaosainam. Thereafter, determined to prove his doubters wrong and overturn his ‘cursed’ label, Ahlo enters the traditional Rocket Festival. No other setting could be more fitting in witnessing the magical sense of delight that overcomes the protagonist; cinematographer, Andrew Commis does well to capture it.

Combining pathos and light humour, it’s not surprising that the film has garnered critical praise worldwide, winning awards at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals. Despite the risks attached to writing a film in a foreign language with a largely amateur cast, there’s a pleasing vitality in the performances and dialogue. Though The Rocket sticks to the happy coming-of-age narrative, there’s a greater depth to the film possibly due to the director’s desire to raise awareness about the pain incurred on the Laos people by Western companies and the ravages of constant war.

The Rocket is, however, mainly fixed on what the future presents, ensuring an uplifting experience that will leave viewers with a gratified smile.

4/5 stars

BY LARRY LAI

The Rocket is in cinemas now.

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