10 Films Set in Laos You Should Watch Before You Go

Wat Piawat in Xieng Khouang Province, Laos
Wat Piawat in Xieng Khouang Province, Laos | © PTD Phonsavan/ Wikimedia Commons

Laos is home to the Vintianale International Film Festival and the Luang Prabang Film Festival. Filmmakers from all over the world have set their visual stories against the backdrop of Southeast Asia’s mountainous landlocked country. Kick back with one of these flicks and allow yourself to be transported to the land of the Mekong River and warm hearts.

The Rocket

Winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and Best Actor in a Narrative Film at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Rocket is an Australian drama. Released in 2013, the film is in Lao with subtitles. A boy named Ahlo, who is believed to bring bad luck to people around him, leaves his rural village in northern Laos with his father and grandmother. The village people are being displaced for dam construction that will flood their valley. The family attends a rocket festival where Ahlo wants to enter the rocket making contest in hopes of winning a big cash prize and proving once and for all he’s not cursed.

Love is Forever/ Comeback

Love is Forever, also released as Comeback, is a 1982 drama based on John Everingham’s (played by Michael Landon) real life experience as an Australian journalist in Laos and Thailand during the Vietnam War. Everingham befriends and eventually falls in love with a Lao woman, Keo, (played by Priscilla Presley in her first movie role) assigned by a communist advisor to spy on him. He is eventually arrested and exiled to Thailand. Wanting to reunite with Keo and bring her to Thailand, Everingham learns to scuba dive in the Mekong River.

River is a Canadian thriller released in 2015. A doctor from the United States is working in Laos and takes a vacation to 4000 Islands. A night of drinking leads to the death of an Australian senator’s son. After stopping the sexual assault of a woman, her assailant’s body is found in the Mekong River. The doctor, John Lake, becomes a fugitive thinking he will be charged with murder. Lake evades the police and seeks help from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. Staring Rossif Sutherland as John Lake, River premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Air America

Not a critic favorite, but a classic nonetheless with an amazing soundtrack, Air America stars a young Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson as pilots for the secret company Air America, created by the CIA to transport supplies and munitions to ally troops in the covert war in Laos. This 1990 comedy has dark anti-war overtones. Adapted from the 1978 book of the same name by Christopher Robbins, the main characters get wrapped up in the opium trade when they discover their plane is being used to illegally transport heroin. Their plane is shot down, then the helicopter sent to rescue them meets the same fate. Disillusioned with the war and their part in it, the duo hatch a plan to quit their jobs, make it rich, and get back at their enemies.

Chantaly

Mattie Do is the first woman to direct a Lao feature film. Chantalay debuted at the 2012 Luang Prabang Film Festival and is the first horror film to be entirely written and directed in Laos. Set in the capital of Vientiane, Chantalay thinks her dead mother is sending her messages from the afterlife. Raised by an overbearing father, she has a genetic heart condition that requires medication. A change in prescription causes the visions of her mother’s ghost to disappear. She must decide between her health and hearing her mother’s final message. Fans of Chantaly will also like Mattie Do’s 2016 horror flick, Dearest Sister, also set in Laos.

Lost in Laos

Lost in Laos is a 2012 Italian language film with subtitles, not to be confused with the 2015 Dutch drama by the same name. A couple, Daniela and Paolo, visits Laos on holiday during the wet season despite their parents’ disapproval. After partaking in the Vang Vieng river bar scene they pass out and end up lost and stranded with their tubes down river. Sick and lost, they are taken in by a rural village. They see a Laos very far removed from the party scene they came for. Experiencing the local people, culture and food, they discover a deeper respect for the country, eventually finding their way home.

Good Morning Luang Prabang

This 2008 romantic comedy was the first commercially filmed movie made in Laos since the 1975 communist takeover. Spoken in Lao with subtitles, the plot follows a Thai photographer, Sorn, who falls in love with his Lao tour guide, Noi. This non-controversial film’s production was overseen by a government official whose job was to ensure Laos was portrayed in a positive light. The result is a very sweet love story set to a stunning backdrop of every conceivable place a tourist might like to visit – from Pakse in the south to Luang Prabang in the north, and the capital Vientiane.

Lost in Laos

Lost in Laos is a 2015 Dutch film, unaffiliated with the 2012 Italian film of the same name. It was shot over five weeks by filmmakers Vincent Lodder and Jonathan Kray on a trip through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They returned with 22 hours of film that they cut into this 71-minute film. Part documentary and part fictitious story, the film follows Cohen’s journey to trace his missing brother David’s steps through Southeast Asia. Cohen receives a call from a hospital in Thailand saying David is gravely ill, but he is also missing. Using David’s video messages as clues, Cohen sets out to find what happened to him. The director’s cut is available to watch on Vimeo.

The Betrayal – Nerakhoon

The Betrayal – Nerakhoon is an Oscar-nominated documentary film showing Lao co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath’s family’s forced immigration to New York City after the secret war. Pharasavath’s father fought with the Americans in the secret war and when the new communist government started arresting and killing those affiliated. The film shows the hardships of Phrasavath’s childhood in Laos and how he adapts to his new culture in New York.

Rescue Dawn

It’s 1966 and US pilots are covertly bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos at unprecedented rates. Rescue Dawn is a 2006 film staring Christian Bale as a rookie pilot Dieter Dengler, who is shot down on his first mission. Captured and imprisoned by enemy troops, he meets other POWs, some who have been in custody for more than two years, and plans their escape. Bale lost over 30 pounds for the film, which was shot in reverse chronological order as Bale gained the weight back over the course of filming. Directed by Werner Herzog, Rescue Dawn is based on a true story told in Dieter Dengler’s memoir Escape from Laos.

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