Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt traveled to Laos, a place virtually untouched by the cinematic gaze, for his harrowing 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, about the children who are maimed and killed every year collecting as scrap metal the hundreds of unexploded bombs, rockets, and grenades that have littered the Laotian countryside since the Vietnam War.
He returns to Laos' farmlands, rolling valleys, and hills for his feature debut, The Rocket, a powerful, deeply moving drama about a young boy who comes to terms with the tragedies that have befallen his family by creating a thing of beauty - a gorgeous, high-flying rocket emitting triumphant bursts of color - out of refuse left by the war.
Shot in a clean, crisp vérité style, The Rocket opens as the beautiful young wife Mali (Alice Keohavong) gives birth to twins. Mali's mother-in-law, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), is horrified: According to tradition, twins bring bad luck to the entire community and must be killed upon birth. Since one of the babies is stillborn, the old woman lets Mali keep the boy, as long as the shameful secret is never revealed.
Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) grows to become a precocious, curious, and hyperactive 10-year-old, flitting about like a shuttle between his mom and dad Toma (Sumrit Warin). Their lives seem idyllic.
But the specter of doom seems to follow the boy. Things start going wrong when the government decides to build a dam and flood the valley. Promising to relocate the villagers to an Edenic new town fully outfitted with running water and electricity, uniformed men herd the villagers into trucks.
When Mali dies in a horrific accident, Taitok lets the secret spill out: Ahlo is a twin, a cursed child, she reveals in a fit of rage.
The new town turns out to be nothing but a miserable campground set in an arid area that can't support crops or livestock. Instead of nice new houses, the villagers are given dingy, ramshackle tin huts.
Figuring he's cursed anyway, Ahlo flouts all the community's sacred traditions - he steals the food left out at family shrines, steals funeral flowers, smashes up people's temporary shelters.
Worse, he starts hanging out with two outsiders - Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a doe-eyed girl his age, and her middle-aged uncle Purple (Suthep Po-ngam), a bombed-out, boozing former child soldier obsessed with James Brown.
The children have adventures around ancient monuments and in bomb craters, in swarming bat caves and crystalline streams, in pig sties and mosquito-infested pools.
Mordaunt's film is an aching, poetic depiction of a world where life is precarious in a way unimaginable - unintelligible, even - to most Westerners.
It shows how the fear of death is staved off through adherence to rituals, traditions, and customs that sustain a community by rooting it in a place and a flow of time that's intelligible. And how the march of modernity makes life strange again, unintelligible and frightening.
But Mordaunt refuses to romanticize the villagers as some sort of happy-go-lucky Rousseau-ian noble savages. He shows how traditions can be malleable, adaptable - the rocket festival that concludes the film combines a rite of supplication to the sky gods for rain with a practical way to get rid of the wreckage left by the technology of modern warfare.
Directed by Kim Mordaunt. With Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam. Distributed by Kino Lorber.
In Lao with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: not rated (adult themes, mild violence, some gore, profanity)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse