In anticipation of Heritage Line’s newest cruise along the Mekong River in Laos, set to launch September 2022, we’ve compiled a collection of must-see films set in this mesmerizing Southeast Asian country.
The following list is sorted by Rotten Tomato rating, and most can be steamed online via Amazon Prime or Apple iTunes (click on rating for more information). Also be sure to check out our list of films set in neighbouring Cambodia.
6. River (2015) – 85%
The first film in our list is a Canadian indie thriller which tells the story of an American doctor volunteering his services in Laos. Following a botched emergency operation, John Lake decides to drown away his sorrows at the local drinking hole. On his way home, he stumbles upon an inebriated tourist who appears to have just sexually assaulted one of the local woman he had met at the bar.
After getting into a ferocious brawl, the always well-intentioned protagonist inadvertently kills the assailant. Charged with murder and sexual assault the following morning, he becomes a fugitive on the run desperately seeking to prove his innocence.
5. The Long Walk (2019) – 88%
The Long Walk is directed by the first and only female Lao director, Mattie Do. The veteran filmmaker’s third film is a combination of genres, infused with equal parts drama, sci-fi time travel and chilling ghost story.
Walking along a long dirt road connecting his isolated house to a rural Laotian village, our nameless, present-day main character discovers a woman fatally injured from a road accident. They hold hands as she passes away, and from this point on he and the ghost become interconnected. Fast forward 50 years, our protagonist discovers his spectral companion has the ability to send him back in time. As he enters a perplexing time loop in an attempt to resolve childhood traumas, the old man learns that each action he takes in the past has significant consequences in the future.
4. Rescue Dawn (2007) – 90%
Based on a true story, Rescue Dawn holds the distinction of being the only high-budget feature film on our list. In 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, German-born U.S. Navy pilot, Dieter Dengler (portrayed by Christian Bale), is shot down in his Douglas A-1 Skyraider over Laos. He is discovered by the communist Pathet Lao, then imprisoned in a remote POW jungle camp alongside five other inmates (including two fellow U.S. pilots).
As food supplies run dangerously low over the coming months, a captive overhears one of the starving guards mention executing the prisoners so they could return to their home village. The group is then left with no choice but to attempt a prison break by overpowering the guards during lunchtime — the online time in which their guns are left unattended.
3. Dearest Sister: Nong Hak (2016) – 93%
The second of acclaimed director Maggie Do’s three films (see #5, The Long Walk), Dearest Sister is a horror flick which follows Nok, a Lao village girl who moves to Vientiane to take care of her cousin, who has suddenly become ill.
Though the mysterious illness has caused Ana to go blind, she has also seemed to gain the ability to communicate with the dead as well as catch glimpses into the future. During one of these visions, she starts to recite some numbers, which Nok uses to play the lottery and wins the grand prize. The cash prize, however, is taken by the household servants who threaten to reveal that the deceptive Nok has been long been stealing money from Ana.
2. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) (2008) – 94%
Filmed over a period of 23 years, The Betrayal tells of co-director Thavi Phrasavath’s harrowing escape from Laos. It was universally praised by critics, nabbing several awards in addition to an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Simultaneous to the Vietnam War, the United States also played a covert role in the Laos civil war. Thavi’s father was an officer in the Royal Army of Laos who fought alongside the CIA against the Pathet Lao communist insurrection. After the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, however, the government was overthrown by Pathet Lao while the U.S.’s former Lao allies were abandoned (or ‘betrayed’) for execution or imprisonment.
Now an enemy of the state, Thavi’s father suddenly disappeared from their home – and his fate was never to be discovered. Fearing for their lives, the family decided to escape to neighbouring Thailand. While Thavi was the first of his family to swim across the Mekong River, it wasn’t for another two years before he would reunite with his mother and siblings at a Thai refugee camp. They were eventually granted asylum, but unfortunately, after emigrating to then-gang-infested Brooklyn, the family discovered that they had only ‘jumped out of the frying pan into the fire’.
1. The Rocket (2013) – 95%
The top film in our list is set against the backdrop of northern Laos with its vegetation covered peaks and unexploded American bombs. Our main character, Ahlo, was born as a sole surviving twin. And when twins are brought into the world, local tribe beliefs state that one is always blessed while the other is cursed. Because Ahlo’s grandmother thinks he is the latter, she suggests killing the baby at birth. His mother refuses, fortunately, though his ill-fated destiny seems to follow him throughout his childhood.
In the present day, construction of a new dam forces Ahlo’s entire village to relocate further upstream. Sadly, the mother dies from an unfortunate accident while moving the family belongings. They do not stay in the new settlement long, however, as the mischievious boy’s antics anger the local residents and forces the family to escape and search the countryside for a new home.
One of the villages they come across is preparing for the Rocket Festival, which is an actual ceremony celebrated in communities across northern Laos where homemade rockets are fired into the air to appease the rain god. After hearing about the cash prize of 10 million Lao kip (equivalent to $1,000 USD, more than most families make in a year) for the contest’s best rocket, Ahlo sets out to learn the secrets about rocketry in order to win the competition and prove he is not the ‘cursed twin’.
Also rounding out our list of films in Laos are a couple more that we believe deserve a nod.
Air America (1990)
With its appalling 13% Tomato rating, Air America gets a mention merely because it stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. This light-hearted, buddy duo follows the exploits of two pilots for the CIA-run Air America, which illegally transports weapons and drugs in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This comedic and tasteless tone, however, deviates from its source material, a non-fiction book of the same name which grimly recounts the true atrocities and human cost of war.
This Little Land of Mines (2019)
Despite not officially involved in the Vietnam War, few know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history – more than all nations in WWII combined. In an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail, which also spilled across the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the U.S. government approved covert operations which dropped over 2 million tonnes of explosives over Laos between 1964 and 1973.
This eye-opening documentary reveals how large swaths of the country are still covered with an estimated 80 million unexploded ordinance (UXO), inflicting not just death and destruction but also psychological terror to those living in the countryside a full half a century following the end of the war.
Discover Laos with us aboard a Heritage Line luxury cruise
Scheduled for its maiden voyage in September 2022, Heritage Line Anouvong will be the upper Mekong River’s premiere boutique vessel. Outfitted with luxurious amenities, its 10 cabins and suites are to be the largest of any river vessel in Laos.
Heritage Line offers two wonderful journeys with unmatched sightseeing, entertainment and cuisine. A shorter 3-night journey connects the Thai-Lao border town of Huay Xai to the UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated Luang Prabang. Longer 7- and 9-night cruises are also available, which include a full, guided exploration of Luang Prabang and extends this blissful voyage all the way down to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Thumbnail image: Scene from The Rocket