A small boy struggling to come to terms with loss learns to find accommodation with grief while helping a marooned extraterrestrial get back to her people in the delightful Vietnamese family film, Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy (Cô Bé Đến Từ Hành Tinh Khác). A classic kids’ adventure movie, Ham Tran’s zany tale finds its young hero not only trying to reorient himself in a world of constant change but also attempting to process the wider sources of societal destabilisation such as rapid gentrification and shady billionaire scientists with dubious ambitions.
Eight-year-old Hung lost his mother to illness a year or so ago and is now living alone with his father Thanh who is forced to work long hours in his shop fixing mobile phones in order to clear the family’s mounting debts. Not only are they being constantly hounded by a pair of thugs working for a local gangster with a thing for Japan who wants to evict all the tenants so he can sell their building to developers to build more luxury apartments, but his best friend is moving to Saigon and his already busy dad seems to have become awfully friendly with pretty neighbour Miss Trang. When his father breaks a promise to watch a meteor storm with him, Hung goes out on his own and witnesses a strange sight which he later learns to be a UFO crashing to Earth subsequently discovering a young girl, Maika, who has been marooned and is looking for her comrade so she can contact the mothership and get a ride home.
“Even fishes need friends” Hung’s friend had told him on leaving her fish with him so it could be close to his, and that’s true enough for Hung himself now left largely alone and looking for both companionship and adventure. Besides bonding with Maika, he also has a frenemy in a boy who lives in the upscale apartments whose drone keeps chasing his remote control aeroplane. CuBeo is a somewhat awkward boy who just wants to be friends with Hung but admittedly has a funny way of showing it, largely because he has asthma and his overprotective family don’t let him out to play with the other kids so he’s incredibly bored and intensely lonely despite all the high tech toys he has at home. Like Hung, he also seems to have lost his mother and has a workaholic father who rarely visits having left him and his older brother Bin largely in the care of a live-in tutor.
Eventually any sense of class conflict between the two boys disappears as they gradually become friends while bonding over their shared quest to help Maika get back to her family battling the gangster thugs and shady billionaire Nghia who seems to have bought up half the area for his special space project and intends to exploit Maika’s advanced scientific knowledge after having impounded her spaceship. Of course, Nghia and the local gang boss turn out to be little different, in it for personal gain rather than any real interest in the evolution of mankind, while the kids just want to protect their friends and the world in which they live. Making full use of their shared skills, Hung and Beo have immense fun crafting their own weapons, modifying NERF guns to shoot silly putty or slapping their enemies in the face with kimchi, determined to save Maika from Earthly greed.
Through this transitory friendship, Hung begins to come to terms with the loss of his mother while repairing his relationship with his dad and preparing to move on in making friends with Miss Trang no longer seeing her as a threat to his mother’s memory in learning that she’ll always be in his heart as will Maika. Boasting some impressive effects visualising Maika’s various powers and alien technology, Ham Tran’s retro world building otherwise has a defiantly down to Earth sensibility contrasting the inherent warmth of Hung’s cluttered home and friendly neighbourhood with Beo’s obvious loneliness in the emptiness of his white box high rise flat. Child-friendly humour and a healthy dose of silliness add to the whimsical charm, yet the central messages of learning to live with grief and loss even at such a young age are sure to touch the hearts of children and adults alike.
Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.
Original trailer (no subtitles)