Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Rocket

I’m floored by the 100% fresh Rotten Tomatoes score for Kim Mordaunt's “The Rocket,” an egregious example of the critical bias in favor of foreign films.

Don’t get me wrong: the average foreign film we see is better than the average American film, for a variety of reasons – chief among them the winnowing process that theoretically filters the best in world film onto U.S. screens. But a foreign film should not get any credit merely for its “foreignness.” If “The Rocket” were set in America rather than the northern mountain villages of Laos, its first-grade reading-primer storyline and primitive characterizations would be laughed out of the cineplex. 

As the movie opens, Mali (Alice Kohavong) is pregnant with twins. Out first pops Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), our protagonist. The second baby emerges stillborn, convincing Mali’s mother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) that Ahlo is an “evil twin.” This grandma’s a real piece of work: she spends 90% of her screen time calling Ahlo cursed and suggesting he kill himself before causing them further harm. Her theory is bolstered when the family is forced to uproot to a makeshift tent community – their village is to be flooded as part of an Australian-Laotian dam project – and Mali dies in a freak accident involving a boat sliding down a mountainside. This leaves Ahlo’s father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), to spend his time glowering at everyone. 

Along the way, Ahlo makes friends with a similarly displaced girl named Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), traveling aimlessly with her wacky uncle Purple (Thep Pho-Ngam), who dances to James Brown songs in a suit that color and looks like he’s smoked way too much opium. They come to a drought-plagued village about to hold its annual rocket festival and contest in hopes of appeasing the rain gods. Instructed by Purple on the proper use of bat guano, Ahlo sets about constructing and launching a rocket that will win the 10 million kip prize. The outcome is thuddingly predictable, the storytelling devoid of surprise or nuance. So too with the performances; I’ve seen better from kids dangling off Sally Struthers’ bosom. 

I appreciate the rare look inside Laos, and “The Rocket” might conceivably have made a winning short film. Stretched out to 96 minutes, it’s boring, often ugly and unpleasant to look at and listen to (Lao is not one of the world’s beautiful languages).

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