Two New International Films Worth Seeing: The Rocket and Bethlehem

garysoloTwo impressive international films—one light, one dark—open this weekend in Bay Area theaters.

The Rocket, written and directed by Kim Mordaunt, is an enjoyable, albeit predictable, crowd-pleaser set in the northern mountains of Laos. This award-winning film is as charming as its resourceful young hero, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe).

As the film opens, Mali (Alice Keohavong) gives birth to Ahlo and his twin. However, this curses Ahlo.

His bad luck may be what prompts a tragic accident as his family relocates to make way for a hydroelectric dam in their village. Moreover, Ahlo also causes a disruption in the new village. As such, he becomes an outcast along with his family members. They set out for a new place to live along with Kia (Loungna Kaosainam) and her uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), a man who channels James Brown. Soon, Ahlo hopes to build a rocket to win a local competition’s large cash prize and restore luck to his hardscrabble family.

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If there are no surprises as to what transpires, The Rocket features some glorious moments (and scenery), including an underwater swimming sequence, a mythical funeral ceremony, and the rocket competition itself. Mordaunt has crafted an atmospheric film that addresses issues of tradition vs. modernization. He coaxes affable performances out of his entire non-professional cast, and celebrates Ahlo’s determination to prove himself and find his self-worth. The Rocket is a real sleeper.

Meeting me at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles last November, the Australian Mordaunt described making his film—which involved children, animals, and explosives—as “playful chaos.” The filmmaker enjoyed the magic and spontaneity of working with children, whom, he observed, could be as unpredictable as the animals. Mordaunt has a background in documentaries; in 2007, he made a film called Bomb Harvest, also shot in Laos. While in Southeast Asia, he learned about the history of the people and their festivals. He said he wanted to use the rocket festival depicted in his film as a “metaphor to turn war into something more beautiful.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the subject of Bethlehem, an urgent and gripping drama about Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), an Arab teenager who is working as an undercover asset for Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli Secret Service officer.

Director Yuval Adler, who also chatted with me for the Bay Times at last year’s AFI Festival, explained that he wanted to jump between his characters to show the same event from both sides and perspectives. His non-biased approach works well as viewers come to understand the complex relationship between Sanfur and Razi, which is tested when Razi’s brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), and his martyr group take responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

Razi, who goes to great lengths to protect his asset, learns that Sanfur assisted his brother, and this revelation could put his operation in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Sanfur feels a sense of duty to help avenge his brother’s untimely death at the hands of the Israelis. There are multiple subplots and double crosses that occur in Bethlehem, and the dramatic tension builds when Sanfur and Razi are at odds with one another. But, Adler keeps the characters and their motivations clear, and he moves the action along nimbly. A sequence in which Ibrahim is chased and killed is particularly intense, and there are some shocking acts of violence.

Viewers will be absorbed in the drama and care about the lead characters who operate in secret. As Sanfur faces pressures from his family or when Razi gets static from his boss, who perceives Razi made a procedural error, audiences understand the deeper stories behind the surface issues.

Adler also conveys a strong sense of time and place, and creates a feel for the harsh conditions in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Both Mar’i and Halevi are excellent and are particularly expressive, especially when they are hiding their real emotions. If the film gets a little contrived in the last act, when a situation prompts Sanfur and Razi to confront each other, Bethlehem ends powerfully, but not happily.

© 2014 Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.