Loungnam Kaosainam, left, and Sittiphon Disamoe become friends in 'The Rocket.' (Tom Greenwood / Kino International)
One night in a remote village in Laos, a woman named Mali (Alice Keohavong) is giving birth.
A healthy boy emerges and Mali and her mother-in-law Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) are happy. But then Mali begins having more contractions. Mali and Taitok immediately realize this means she is having twins.
At which point Taitok moves to kill the newborn boy, because the superstition is that out of two twins, one will be cursed and bring bad luck, so they must both be killed to ensure good luck. But Mali convinces her not to act, and when the second baby arrives, it is dead.
They bury the second baby secretly and let the first live. But Taitok doesn’t trust the child, called Ahlo, knowing he is still a twin and may be cursed.
Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) grows up to be a resourceful boy. But then his family and the entire village has to move so their valley can be used as a reservoir for a dam. This is bad, but when personal tragedy strikes, Taitok blames Ahlo, finally telling his father Toma (Sumrit Warin) that the boy is a cursed twin.
The family plows on, and Ahlo even makes friends with a young orphan girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam). But bad luck follows them at every turn. And Ahlo becomes determined to prove he’s not cursed.
This is the basis for “The Rocket,” a film that’s both wonderfully specific about the trials and natural facts of remote Laotian life and completely universal as it wrestles with questions of fate, self-worth and perseverance.
Ultimately Ahlo hopes to prove his value — to himself as much as others — in a rocket-building contest that might win his family security and a new home.
Along the way, he’s helped by Kia’s drunkard Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an outcast who dresses in a purple suit and idolizes James Brown. Which is how we get James Brown’s music blaring and his dance steps intercut with a chase sequence, one of the film’s livelier scenes.
Then again, “The Rocket,” deftly directed and co-written by Australian Kim Mordaunt, is a pretty lively affair overall, building steadily from tragedy to its inevitably explosive ending. This is not some quiet art film but a barreling story bolstered by fine touches — abandoned bombs, wildlife left homeless by ruthless development, small shrines to the dead — that show the intersection of the modern and the traditional.
In its ecstatic final moments, “The Rocket” is traditional feel-good cinema. But along the way it follows a search for personal salvation while painting a portrait of Laotian life that’s both revealing and relatable.
Running time: 96 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre