by Alex Billington
January 31, 2022
Hidden in the “Kids” section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival is this kooky, cheesy, fun kids movie called Maika from Vietnam. I don’t even know how or why the festival decided to include this movie, because it’s barely good enough to be considered a TV movie, but it does slide right into the so-bad-it’s-good territory a few times. As ridiculous and impractical as this movie is, it’s honestly so likable and so charming. One geeky Vietnamese kid gets caught up in an adventure with an alien girl who helps him save the day and take out some bullies. I can’t help but admit it’s harmless “kids movie” fun and I’m glad I watched it; goofy cinema but worth it. For all the really bad scenes in this, there are some really wonderful scenes that balance things out. It’s an entertaining, earnest sci-fi story with some truly mediocre VFX with its heart in the right place.
Maika introduces us to a young boy named Hung, who lives in the coastal city of Da Nang. He’s left hurt and sad and lonely after his mother passes away and his best friend moves away. His nemesis is an egotistical rich kid bully who torments him with new gadgets every day. One day a glowing purple meteor crashes into the hills nearby. But before anyone can find it, the alien creature inside takes the form of a young girl. She is found by Hung, who soon learns she is from the planet Maika and has an inexplicably wide range of special powers, including healing abilities, telekinesis, and a telepathic ability to access the internet. This movie is basically a Vietnamese riff on Spielberg’s iconic E.T., ripping off scenes and even copying the John Williams score in a few places, too. But it sort of works, I can’t get too upset at them. Just like E.T., it’s about a lonely kid who befriends an extraterrestrial that helps him become less lonely and grow up a bit in the meantime.
At one point, the film becomes an epic advertisement for this Vietnamese theme park called Sun World Ba Na Hills (check it out), which just so happens to be located outside of the city Da Nang where the film takes place. There’s also a handful of scenes that take place on a VietJet Air airplane, making it clear that the film received almost all of its funding from these two companies in order to act as an ad for both of them (mainly targeting Vietnamese people). That said, and perhaps this is because I really want to visit Vietnam one day, these ads didn’t bother me that much! I’m sold! Ba Na Hills looks so cool, I want to visit it some day, too… They look like they’re having so much fun up there! While also following the plot, as Maika has designed a transmission device to help her find a “friend” so she can go home. But the bad guys chased them into this theme park. It’s hard not to mention this because it’s so obvious but not as bad as it sounds. Or maybe it is?
As entertaining as Maika is, it has a boatload of problems. The VFX are really, really rough throughout most of it. This doesn’t ruin it, but it’s hard to watch. Then there’s the chubby rich kid, whose performance is so blatantly performative and awful, that I almost had to skip past his scenes. I couldn’t stand him. But despite all of the problems, it’s still the kind of movie that I can’t be entirely frustrated with because it feels like the director knew that this is exactly what he wanted to make. Vietnamese filmmaker Ham Tran, who wrote & directed this, wanted to make a kids movie that is definitely only for kids while also an homage to E.T. but for Vietnamese kids. And it’s sweet and wears its heart on its sleeve and isn’t afraid of being nerdy. All of that really does matter when it comes to this kind of storytelling. So grab a big bucket of popcorn and enjoy.