By Long Tran
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
SEATTLE — The Vietnamese-language science fiction children’s film, “Maika: Cô bé đến từ hành tinh khác (Maika: The Girl from Another Galaxy),” returned to the screen at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) C-ID Summer Cinema Series at Hing Hay Park this month.
The C-ID Summer Cinema series is a free event and a neighborhood screening of independent films and live performances for multigenerational and multicultural communities. The series will run every Saturday until Aug. 27, concluding with the screening of director Ham Tran’s film.
The Shine Global Children’s Resilience in Film Award nominated-movie chronicles the bereaved young boy, Hung, who lost his mother at a young age but gained a friend in the purple-haired alien by the name of Maika.
Loosely adapted from the Czechoslovakian children’s television show, “Spadla z oblako (She Fell from Clouds)” that ran from 1978-1983, the whimsical plot and visual effects of the film make allusions to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 science fiction film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, receiving distribution from Well Go USA Entertainment. Fellow Vietnamese American filmmaker Bao Tran, who also had his recent martial arts comedy film “The Paper Tigers” receive distribution from the same label, describes Ham as “one of our vanguards, if you will, of Vietnamese American film.”
Bao highlights the “groundbreaking” prominence of Ham’s work by discussing his 2006 feature historical drama film “Vượt sóng (Journey from the Fall).” The film chronicles the horrors that reeducation camp prisoners and the Vietnamese boat people faced after Sài Gòn was taken over by the National Liberation Front on April 30, 1975, signaling the end of the Việt Nam War.
“[The film] put the Vietnamese American community on the map and he continues to do that to this day. I really admire him as a friend and filmmaker.”
Besides the theater run of “Bố già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” in 2021, Vietnamese-language films rarely receive a U.S. release. What is notable is that much like its predecessor, “Maika” enjoys strong support from the local Vietnamese American community. Many Seattle residents have come together to rent out theaters and make free tickets available to the public via online RSVP.
Kenneth Nguyen, who is in charge of coordinating screenings of the film in major markets and theater chains like AMC, collaborates with Ham and a team of prominent Vietnamese Americans with expertise in film production, entertainment law, business, and film festival programming under the media company, EAST FILMS. Nguyen affirms that his main creative goal is to “glorify the name and work of all of the trials and efforts of what our people have gone through.”
Outside of his work bringing EAST FILMS productions to more screens, Nguyen is a prolific podcaster who has interviewed many prominent Vietnamese public figures, including filmmakers, actors, scholars, writers, athletes, politicians, community leaders, and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam on his show, “The Vietnamese with Kenneth Nguyen.”
Nguyen talks about the importance of supporting Vietnamese filmmakers and the need to “create more amplification so we could all walk into an airport in Yugoslavia, in Paris, in New York, and everyone looks at our passport—you’re Vietnamese. And we hold our heads up high, and go ‘yes, we are a fucking amazing group of people.’ We’re not refugees, we’re not zipperheads, we’re not gooks, we’re the Vietnamese, and we’ve arrived.”
Producer Jenni Trang Le and the rest of the crew were not sure their film was a Sundance film and never thought to submit “Maika” anywhere. The veteran producer of 13 feature films, who has worked with Ham since they both attended UCLA, continues to elevate Vietnamese cinema to new heights. Having worked on her fair share of independent films, in addition to major Vietnamese blockbusters, and with Oscar-winner Spike Lee, her recent producing effort proves to be a special passion project.
“Out of all the films, [it is] probably my most favorite just because it was so challenging…we loved the kids so much. We were so proud of how it came together in the end.” The film premiered in the KIDS section at the Sundance Film Festival as the first purely Vietnamese-produced feature film, which received a 25-city theatrical run, with screenings in Việt Nam and at film festivals around the world.
What is unique about this film is that it is available in a Vietnamese and English version.
“The English dub, Ham directed himself. 90% of the voice actors are Vietnamese American…It was really important for us to have representation in that aspect as well.”
Although the film’s theatrical run has passed, the next phase of bringing the film to more audiences is to make it available in both languages on streaming platforms. For the time being, the best way to support the film is to go to film festival screenings like those organized by SAAFF.
Co-director of the festival Ellison Shieh says that “Maika will actually be the very first Vietnamese-language feature film that we’re sharing at [the] summer series, which is really exciting.”
Shieh notes that this “imaginative” and “heartwarming” film will “probably be a formative film for a lot of kids in the neighborhood.”
Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ray Leonard says
I think that it is worth noting that the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) screened Maika last April.