Mali’s Mangos and the UXO

By Mountain Shadow Director, John Bennison

A Film by Kim Mordaunt
Non-rated - 96 min. - Drama

Summary: A boy who is believed to bring bad luck to everyone around him leads his family and two new friends through Laos to find a new home.

     Pick the mango from the tree
     Hand the mango down to me
     Put the mango in a sack
     Put the sack upon my back
     Everybody, now come along
     Help me sing my mango song

        "Mango Song" by Joyce Winters.

For a decade beginning in 1964, the U.S. military dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during countless bombing missions, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita to date in human history. The bombings were part of what came to be known as the U.S. “Secret War in Laos,” in efforts to support one side in a civil war; while disrupting the supply chain along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail during the more public American war in Southeast Asia (commonly referred to as the Vietnam War).

While the bombings in Laos destroyed numerous villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Laotians, up to one third of the bombs dropped never detonated; leaving the countryside contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance, otherwise known as “UXO.” Subsequently, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing campaign ended over 40 years ago.

Australian filmmaker/writer/director Kim Mordaunt has lived and worked throughout Southeast Asia, including teaching filmmaking in refugee centers and prisons.  In 2007, he produced “Bomb Harvest,” an 88-minute documentary that depicted the ongoing efforts to safely find and disarm UXO.  It is against this sobering backdrop that Mordaunt wrote and directed his 2013 film, The Rocket.

[Spoiler alert: this review contains comments and a few examples from the film.]
Ahlo, age 10, is the surviving twin in a culture where such births are considered a curse, and where it is believed the child’s fate will bring doom on the family. When a new dam construction project requires relocating an entire village of peasants who subsist off the land, ancient tribal traditions and superstitions become juxtaposed to modern notions of progress and intrusive globalization. 

The boy insists on trying to bring his little boat on the arduous journey, while his mother Mali promises they will plant the seeds from a few mangos that will then flourish, despite a severe drought throughout the land.  After Ahlo’s stubbornness results in tragic consequences for the family, grief and guilt point the accusatory finger of blame squarely on the boy. Absorbing the emotional blows, yet undeterred, Ahlo’s sojourn leads him through a land littered with UXO. 

Along the way he encounters Purple, a partially-crazed drunken Laotian impersonator of his hero, James Brown; and who once soldiered with the Americans as a young man, and knows all about explosives. 

In a place where the lingering legacy of a former war of detached ideologies once rained down bombs upon a people who only longed to have a place to till the soil, Purple instructs the boy on how to formulate the most powerful concoction to fuel a rocket.  The rocket will not only win a contest with which his family can purchase fertile land to plant Mali’s mango seeds with the prize money. The rocket will rise high enough in the sky to “poke the sky god’s arse,” and seed the clouds to break the cursed drought and bring the desperately needed rain to all the villagers.

Far more than a child’s tale, The Rocket launches a more profound adult message about not simply reversing the flow and direction of explosive devices, but their meaning and purpose as well.