Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Sunday, November 3, 2013 I attended the highly anticipated Florida Premiere of The Rocket at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The screening took place at the historic Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was a selection in the World Cinema Features section.
The Rocket, an Australian production set in Laos (shot on location in Laos and Thailand), is a multi award-winning coming of age drama from writer/director Kim Mordaunt. An aggressive program of hydroelectric development is bringing yet another dam to this peaceful Laotian valley, and the impounded lake will inundate many small villages that have been inhabited by the same families for centuries. But, as in many countries, the disconnected communities here have no sway with the government and must pull up roots and move to higher ground. Many feel that little Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), only 10, was cursed at birth and brings bad luck to the town, even to his family – father Toma (Sumrit Warin), mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), and feisty grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) -- so he is blamed for this latest tragedy to befall the village.
On their way to a new home, the boy meets orphaned nine-year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her eccentric uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an enigmatic Vietnam War veteran who worships James Brown (and has the moves to prove it). Everyone in Ahlo’s world feels he's just a delinquent on a downward spiral – and bringing everyone along with him – except Kia and Purple. Derision just steels his determination to redeem himself in the eyes of his people, and with Kia and Purple’s encouragement and support he knows his real mission is to save himself and his village.
Every actor turns in a powerfully emotional performance in this tightly knit cast of mostly newcomers. The one with the most extensive background is Thep Phongham, an experienced actor, writer, and comedian with dozens of Thai films to his credit. His turn as the peculiar Purple is simply a joy to behold. Bunsri Yindi has worked on several projects, most notably as Tony Jaa’s mother in the award-winning Thai blockbuster Ong Bak. This is little Loungnam Kaosainam’s first foray beyond school plays and only the second feature role for former stuntman Sumrit Warin. This is also Alice Keohavong’s second feature but she has an extensive background in theater as well as TV and short films. But The Rocket is the poignant story – both onscreen and off -- of little Sitthiphon Disamoe and his heartfelt journey to redemption, whose "overnight" discovery is destined to be told time and again. The boy was plucked off the street, literally, by a caring woman who saw something special in him. With no professional experience whatsoever, she brought him to the attention of casting director Raweeporn Jungmeier. Dreams do come true.
Kim Mordaunt is a novice in the director’s chair on a project like this. Although he has experience as an actor, cinematographer, writer, director, and producer on close to a dozen projects, primarily TV shows, shorts, and documentaries, this is his first narrative feature. As such, Mordaunt smartly relies on a talented crew of experienced industry veterans. Their commitment to high production values fires The Rocket into modern-day epic territory. The creative team helped stretch every Australian dollar in the modest production budget (some estimate AUD $2M or USD $1.82M).
The Rocket was shot by Andrew Commis, who has over 30 projects to his credit – this is his eighth feature film as cinematographer. 2009’s Beautiful Kate earned him the Golden Tripod Award and Cinematographer of the Year from the Australian Cinematographers Society and an IF Award for Best Cinematography, along with Best Cinematography nominations from the Australian Film Institute (AFI) and the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA). He’s also been honored with an AFI Award for the 2008 documentary A Northern Town. Editor Nick Meyers has 30 big and small screen productions under his belt, including (as First Assistant Director, Australia) the Warner Bros. 2009 hit Where the Wild Things Are from director Spike Jonze. His nine major nominations include Best Editing wins for Balibo (2009) from the AFI, FCCA, and the IF Awards. He also won a Best Editing FCCA for 2001’s The Bank. Their teamwork and maturity help take what could have been a haphazard set of subplots and turns it into a coherent mix of comedy and tragedy, liberally mixed with triumph. The devotion shown by Commis and Meyers to the material is apparent, manifesting itself in a marvelouly authentic and entertaining cinematic experience.
The movie's breathtaking widescreen format allows the viewer to take in Laos’ incredibly lush jungles, whose density also provides cover for intrigue and danger – none more so than the dreaded UXO, unexploded ordnance from the war. The film is shot almost exclusively outdoors, typically a massive challenge as exterior shots with available light in a wooded setting don’t allow for a long shooting day. The few interior scenes are generally in shacks without electricity, where practical lighting through the use of candles and flames result in a warm color palette filled with glowing ambers. The ubiquitous vegetation also dictates filming primarily with handheld cameras, bringing the viewer right into the action. The sights, sounds, and smells of the verdant wilderness seem to ooze from the screen.
The soundtrack strikes the perfect balance between a light, playful, childlike theme and one that haunts while tugging at the heartstrings. Composer Caitlin Yeo has scored close to 30 television shows, shorts, and features. Her music rides the wave of emotions that make this a kids’ fantasy one moment, an edge of your seat thriller the next, within a totally original and unpredictable narrative.
As the layers are patiently peeled away, the complexity of the village characters (with a capital C) begins to feel like home. This is a world so very far away, yet these people are familiar. The picture's family-friendly linear narrative helps establish that. The Rocket is also a cultural treasure trove, filled with traditions bound in mysticism and Laotian rituals that characterize life amidst leftover ammo. American bombs sit in the shadows of elaborate shrines erected to honor the dead. In the end, though, it’s all about the boy and the optimism of youth. Political and cultural statements aside, The Rocket is a spectacular coming of age film that could be set anywhere – it just happens to be Southeast Asia. But Ahlo is truly one of a kind, and Sitthiphon Disamoe turns in one of the year’s best and most precious youth performances in an unforgettable motion picture.
NOTE: I selected The Rocket as one of my Top 7 Foreign Language Narratives from the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which awarded Special Jury Prizes to writer/director Kim Mordaunt and star Sitthiphon Disamoe. It premiered in the Generation Kplus (Teen) section at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three awards: Best Debut Feature, the prestigious Crystal Bear for Generation Kplus Best Feature, and the Amnesty International Film Prize. It had its North American Premiere at Tribeca, where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature along with the Jury Awards for Best Actor to young Sitthiphon Disamoe and Best Narrative. It won the Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature at the Sydney, Melbourne, Calgary, Naples (US), and Leeds International Film Festivals. The Rocket also won Audience Awards for World Cinema at AFI Fest and Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Film Festival. Other festivals presenting awards included Kosovo (Best Film, Screenplay, and Cinematography), Denmark’s Buster Film Festival (Best Film, International Jury and Best Actor, Children’s Jury to Disamoe), Amsterdam’s Cinekid Film Festival (Best Film, International Jury and Best Film, Children’s Jury), Mumbai (Best Cinematography), Ukraine’s Molodist (Best Children’s Film), and the Toronto ReelAsian International Film Festival (Best First Feature). It was honored by the Australian Writers Guild for Best Original Feature Screenplay. The Rocket is the official submission of Australia to the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2014 Academy Awards.
It was produced by Sylvia Wilczynski for Red Lamp Films. Executive Producers were Bridget Ikin, Michael Wrenn, David MacFarlane, and Triphet Rookachat. Pauline Phayvanh Phoumindr served as Associate Producer. The Rocket is a production of Red Lamp Films, with the assistance of Milsearch PTY LTD & Milsearch Lao and McCumsties@Margaritaville Fund, with the assistance of Ecoventure and Ton Enterprises, developed and financed in association with Screen NSW. Principal investor, development and production by Screen Australia. Copenhagen-based LevelK ApS acquired worldwide sales rights.
The film has distribution deals for several territories, including Curious Films for Australia (where it opened August 29) and New Zealand (opening March 6, 2014). It is also set to play in Poland starting December 6 and the UK in March 2014, and on television in Slovenia in 2014. The Rocket has been selected to travel the world by Sundance Film Forward, ”an international touring program designed to enhance greater cultural understanding, collaboration and dialogue around the globe by engaging audiences through the exhibition of films, workshops and conversations with filmmakers.” The tour will bring the film to Bosnia &Herzegovina, California, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan in 2014.
Kino Lorber acquired the film for distribution in the US and Canada. It opens January 10 in New York and January 17 in Los Angeles and Vancouver, with expansion to additional cities beginning January 24. Click here for theaters and showtimes.
ChildFund Australia is proud to be associated with The Rocket, which highlights the many challenges faced by children and their families in a largely undiscovered part of the world. In response, and in conjunction with the film-makers, ChildFund has established The Rocket Education Fund, which will deliver education programs to children in Laos. If you wish to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit Childfund.org.au and select “ Laos: The Rocket Education Fund.” ChildFund is a not-for-profit organization which works directly with communities to create lasting and meaningful change in the lives of children and their families. ChildFund strives to make the world a safer, healthier and happier place for children by designing programs that support long-term development aimed at achieving self-sufficiency.
The official trailer (with English subtitles) is below along with stills, behind the scenes photos, and shots from festival appearances.
Official Site: therocket-movie.com
Official Facebook: facebook.com/Therocketmovie
Distributor Site: kinolorber.com
Distributor Facebook: facebook.com/kinolorberinc
Distributor Twitter: @kinolorber
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…