Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy (Cô Bé Đến Từ Hành Tinh Khác, Ham Tran, 2022)

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)

Action Dongja (액션동자, Yongminne, 2020)

Four little monks discover brotherhood in their shared sadnesses as they valiantly chase down a gang of evil robbers specialising in thieving ancient relics from Buddhist temples in Yongminne’s slapstick kids adventure movie Action Dongja (액션동자). Exposing a societal prejudice against orphans along while upending a few stereotypical notions about monks, Yongminne’s warmhearted drama is equal parts a coming-of-age tale for each of the pint-sized monastics and Home Alone-style heist movie as the kids plot how to take down the crooks using their unique skillsets.

Little Jingu has had it tough. He lost his parents at a young age and has been separated from his younger sister. Now his grandmother who was raising him has died and another woman whom the grandma had apparently asked to take care of him has decided to dump him at the temple instead. Apparently Christian, the woman planned to leave him at an orphanage but thought the temple might be better because he’ll be near his grandmother’s resting place. As might be expected, Jingu does not take well to his new life. Not only is he overcome with grief having lost all of his family members, his home, and everything he knew but he didn’t ask for this very regimented existence and it’s obviously an extreme adjustment which might explain why he’s become mute, sullen, and withdrawn. Nevertheless, one very cheerful and friendly boy nicknamed “piggy” because of his bottomless stomach, extra sensitive nose, and obsession with food keeps trying to make friends with him even coming to his aid when he’s hazed by a couple of local kids at school and later bailed out by two top martial artists, the kind and sensitive Jeongbeop and the exceedingly mean and authoritarian Gajin. 

Jeongbeop explains to the bullies that it’s not right to bully those weaker than yourself and so they had no choice other than to defend themselves, asking for forgiveness as they leave. That doesn’t make much difference to the monks, however, when the boys’ parents turn up to throw their weight around insisting that they don’t want kids like these at their sons’ school virtually accusing the temple of training up little thugs. “Kids without parents are the ones who lie” one fires back, unwilling to believe her good little son could have misrepresented himself while reflecting a societal prejudice towards those who have no family. The younger of the two monks tries to defend the boys, insisting that it’s hardly their fault they’re orphans, but the chief monk is quick to placate the parents while perhaps sending mixed messages punishing Jingu and the other boys but later taking them out for Korean barbecue. Though many Buddhist monks are vegetarian, it is not strictly required and in any case the boys are too young to be expected to adhere entirely to asceticism yet the group’s presence once again arouses a degree of suspicion and resentment as opposed to mere surprise in an irrationally annoyed couple on a nearby table. 

Meanwhile, the boys are also rejected by their peers who unfairly blame them when their temple is robbed, the chief monk stabbed, and a precious picture scroll stolen. Jingu happened to see the face of the man who did the stabbing, but is unable to say anything later telling his new friends when they hatch a plan to catch the thieves themselves as a way of regaining the respect of the other boys and getting justice for the chief monk. In true heist movie style, Jingu who has not yet had his ordination takes the other kids shopping so they can better blend in, the gang even becoming temporary street performers Piggy rapping sutras while the other two do a martial arts display, to pick up extra cash after getting pickpocketed in the big bad city. Unexpectedly it’s Piggy who saves the day with his famously well-attuned sense of smell, picking up the scent of incense on a suspicious man at the port. Bonding during their mission, the boys come to an understanding of their various traumas and the ways in which they inform some of their behaviour generating a sense of brotherhood as they band together to take down the robbers. An old-fashioned kids adventure with a monastic twist, Action Dongja is a charming tale of unconventional found family in which the lonely hero learns to find his place while chasing bad guys and solving crime.

Action Dongja streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Takashi Murakami, 2013)

161244_01Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Mememe no Kurage) is the feature film debut of the internationally popular Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami. Well known for his cutesy character designs which are as likely to turn up in the world’s best regarded art galleries as they are on a kid’s backpack, Murakami is one of Japan’s most highly regarded art exports. Having unsuccessfully tried to raise interest in the more obvious totally CG animation, Murakami has enlisted the help of gore master Yoshihiro Nishimura for some director’s chair tips in creating a live action/CGI hybrid. Jellyfish Eyes is very definitely a kids’ movie, calling it a “family film” seems unfair when the age cut off is most likely around seven or eight years old but those who meet the (lack of) height requirement are sure to lap it up.

The story is set in post-tsunami Japan as Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) has finally moved out of the earthquake evacuation centre with his mother (Mayu Tsuruta) to live in a new town. As it will transpire, the two have moved there alone as Masashi’s father (Kanji Tsuda) has been killed in the tsunami and his mother has a brother (Takumi Saito) in the area. Not long after he moves in, the boy makes a new friend in the shape of a Jellyfish-like creature who floats in the air and loves eating the same kind of snacks as Mashashi. The creature, christened Kurage-bo (Jellyfish Boy), becomes a firm fixture in Masashi’s life and when he arrives at school Masashi realises Kurage-bo is not the only one of his kind. In this strange town all the kids have a weird little creature friend they can control by means of a smartphone app. Predictably some of the meaner boys use them to fight, but could there be a more sinister reason for the appearance of these very odd little guys? and what’s up with the bizarre religious cult that’s located right next to the creepy science lab? This is a very strange town indeed.

The film’s Japanese title, Mememe no Kurage, is a little reminiscent of the master work of the late Shigeru Mizuki, Gegege no Kitaro and like that perennially popular franchise the film focuses on the daily lives of children as they have strange adventures with supernatural creatures. The central premise is that a shady group of black clad scientific researchers (played by Masataka Kubota, Shota Sometani, Hidemasa Shiozawa, and Ami Ikenaga) claim to have found the key to surpassing natural disasters like earthquakes and it relies on the particles generated by the negative emotions of human children. Predictably it’s not long before things go from bad to worse and a giant kaiju-like creature descends on the town requiring the kids to work together to combat the marauding monster before it destroys the entire planet.

To be frank the film sounds a lot more entertaining that it turns out to be. Though undoubtedly very cute and not exactly uninteresting, it all ends up feeling, well, “superflat” only in an unintended way. The photography is generally basic though the CGI itself is of an extremely high quality and perfectly toned to match Murakami’s thematic concerns. Structurally it’s all over the place with the central ideas emphasised a little too strongly only to be thrown out of the window for the sugar rush finale of a million adorable monsters all fighting to the death for their cute as a button sad children masters. There’s quite a lot of darkness and melancholy lurking around the edges but the adorable little critters seem tailor-made for keeping the bad stuff in the background.

Like all good children’s movies the messages are the usual ones about the importance of friendship, sharing, teamwork and doing what’s right but it feels like Murakami has quite a lot of other things to say about reliance on forms of technology (and in particular what that can open the door to) and the state of post earthquake Japan that don’t quite come through. Having said that Jellyfish Eyes boasts some amazing visuals in its adorably cute cast of F.R.I.E.N.Ds and though a little messy is perfectly watchable. A festive treat for younger members of the family, Jellyfish Eyes is full of youthful idealism in the power of simple sincerity and genuine human feeling to win through against even the most terrifying of monsters but ultimately fails to offer much beyond its cutesy visuals.

Here’s a trailer – it says the creatures are invisible to adults but they aren’t (but some of them can make themselves transparent, if that makes sense).