It's hard to describe how completely and utterly charmed I was by Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy, an indie gem being released by Well Go USA Entertainment June 3rd that is noteworthy for being the first ever children's sci-fi feature to come out of Vietnam. Based upon a 70's Czech television series that gained popularity in Vietnam in the 80's and 90's, Maika is a genuinely engaging, vibrantly good-hearted film that looks and feels like E.T. from beginning to end. While Maika may never reach E.T.'s heights, this is an absolute winner of a film that had me smiling the entire time and wanting to watch it over again even as the closing credits were rolling.
Written and directed by Ham Tran, Maika tells the story of Hung (Phu Truong Lai), who lives in a simple apartment above the shop where his father earns a meager but sufficient existence repairing cell phones. Hung's mother passed away a year earlier due to illness, a loss now exacerbated by a bullying organization's efforts to buy the apartment building where Hung lives. Much to the dismay of the other apartment dwellers, Hung's father resists more out of complicated grief than for any business reasons.
Hung's life seems to be downward spiraling when he discovers a crashed spaceship containing a mysterious girl, Maika (Diep Anh Chu), with awesome powers but who has more than a little trouble adapting to this new world in which she finds herself. Needing help to get back to the friend she's lost, Hung and Maika set off on a zany adventure to take on the bad guys and help Maika find her way home.
If I were to review Maika solely on the basis of its technical wizardry, I would most likely be sitting here a tad more disappointed as the film's special effects carry a retro vibe for those of us here in the U.S. who are more accustomed to seamless, bombastic experiences and immersive CGI experiences. There's not a soul who's going to mistake Maika for a James Cameron creation.
Have I mentioned that I don't particularly care for James Cameron experiences?
There's something absolutely captivating about the special effects that come to life in Maika, simple yet immensely fun with a retro aura reminiscent of 80's fare and, if I'm being completely honest, not that completely removed from Spielberg's own E.T. The simplicity of the special effects helps to amplify the film's good-hearted innocence, rather than drawing us away from the story these special effects help us appreciate it even more.
Maika screened at Sundance, the second Ham Tran film to do so after 2006's Journey From the Fall. This is Tran's first journey into family film and I'm really hoping it's not his last. He has a gift here.
Of course, he's also gifted by the presence of Diep Anh Chu as Maika, a purple-haired tiny wonder who completely reeled me in with her socially awkward, fiercely loyal, and completely adorable fish out of water. Oh sure, this is a plot line that has been played a zillion times before. Trust me, Chu makes it all her own and also has a rather wonderful chemistry with the awkward for different reasons Lai.
Maika never really goes anywhere we don't expect it to go, however, it's likely been since E.T. that I've seen this particular storyline play out so entertainingly. It's also refreshing, for the record, to see another side of Vietnam on the big screen beyond the usual media stereotypes and paint-by-number caricatures. Amidst this wonderful children's sci-fi adventure, a different Vietnam is also brought to life.
There are hints of Home Alone here as our two heroes take on the baddies and Tran seems to know exactly when to lean into the film's inherent cartoonishness and when to tap into its abundant heart.
Christopher Wong's music delights and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra is clearly having a blast serving as the perfect companion to this joy-filled, spirited cinematic wonder and clear sign that the burgeoning Vietnam film industry is committed to telling new stories in inspired ways.
Easily one of my favorite family films of 2022, Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy is everything I want a family film to be and more.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic