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MAIKA – Christopher Wong

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Maika, subtitled The Girl from Another Galaxy, is a Vietnamese children’s sci-fi adventure drama, directed by Ham Tran, starring Diep Anh Chu, Kim Nha, Ngoc Tuong, and Phu Truong Lai. The film follows the adventures of an 8-year-old boy named Hung, who is grieving the loss of his mother. After a meteor falls to earth, he meets an alien girl from a distant planet named Maika, who is searching for her lost friend. The alien helps Hung make new friends and heal a broken heart – but Maika is being followed by sinister forces, and Hung must help Maika avoid them so she can return home. The film is being touted as the first ever Vietnamese sci-fi film for children, and normally I would review this as part of my ‘under the radar’ series, but the film has actually been released in a number of theaters in the United States too (especially in cities with large Vietnamese populations), which means I can use this as an opportunity to also talk about its score, which was written by Christopher Wong.

Wong is, by some significant margin, the most successful composer of Vietnamese film music in the world – a niche accomplishment, to be sure, but impressive nonetheless. His movie The Royal Bride was the most successful domestic film at the Vietnamese box office in 2020. Mat Biec was the same in 2019. So was Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass in 2015. His work with directors like Ham Tran, as well as Victor Vu and Charlie Nguyen, have grossed literally hundreds of billions of Vietnamese dong, and he does it all from his home studio in southern California without so much as causing a ripple within American film music circles. Wong – along with his regular collaborators Garrett Crosby and Ian Rees – have between them scored something like 50 films in the last 15-20 years, many of which (Journey from the Fall, The Rebel, Lôi Báo, and last year’s Camellia Sisters, in addition to the ones already mentioned) are absolute knockouts . I have written a version of this sentence before, but as long as I live I will never understand why American directors are not battering down Wong’s front door, begging him to score their movies. The same goes for Crosby and Rees. Maybe Vietnamese cinema is too far out of the mainstream for the right people to notice? Maybe they just don’t know how good he is? I don’t have the answer but, as always, this review is my attempt to, yet again, help put the three of them on the map.

In the press material for this soundtrack, Wong says that “working on Maika was nostalgic in different ways, one in that it was directed by a long time collaborator – Ham Tran – and also in that the film pays homage to some of the great children’s adventure movies of the 1980s. The director and I both wanted the music to remind us of the great adventure soundtracks of that era by John Williams and Alan Silvestri, which was a thrill to write since it’s very rare these days that composers are asked to work in that style. Listeners will hear intentional nods towards one of the themes in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as the story is also about an alien visitor who befriends a child.”

Those are some enormous shoes to fill, and I’d be lying if I were to claim that Wong’s score is as good as E.T. because it clearly isn’t, and he’d be the first to agree with me. But it does have many of the same sensitivities and characteristics as E.T., as well as similar scores of that type: as the score develops you can hear echoes of everything from James Horner’s Cocoon to Alan Silvestri’s Flight of the Navigator, perhaps a little bit of Bruce Broughton’s The Boy Who Could Fly, Craig Safan’s The Last Starfighter, and others, in the way that Wong tries to evoke that sense of childhood adventure, innocent friendship, and deep emotional connection.

The score opens with a rip-roaring orchestral fanfare in “King of the Skies,” a rousing and adventurous theme with a terrific heraldic brass melody, scampering strings, fluttering woodwind lines, and playful percussion rhythms that give the whole thing a sense of broad fun and effortless charm. It’s so good, gloriously old-fashioned and unashamedly nostalgic. The second half of the cue moves between knockabout moments of energetic comedy, more raucous adventure music, and more lyrical writing for strings and flutes; one of the most impressive things about it is the orchestration, which jumps from section to section and from style to style with a great deal of fluidity, but also a sense of scope. The sound is varied, from the different types of percussion items used (rapped snares, high-spirited xylophone runs, tambourines, bright chimes) to the actual rhythmic interplay between the different sections of the orchestra, but it never loses its focus. This is tight, well-constructed, dense music with a light and lively tone.

The recurring motif for Maika herself first appears in “Mother,” just around the 1:35 mark, and this is the part of the score that most resembles E.T., as Wong intentionally channels the famous piccolo motif that John Williams wrote for his lovable alien, and adapts it for this new one. The motif appears to represent a similar set of ideas in Maika as it did in E.T.: Hung’s longing for friendship, Maika’s search for her own friend, the relationship they develop with each other, and Maika’s need to return home. As Maika becomes more important to the story, her motif begins to dominate much of the score’s thematic core, and as such appears it frequently in many subsequent cues. It is accompanied by James Horner-style strings in “Look Up to the Sky,” as a light comedy caper in “Pesky Fly,” with a sense of magic in “Saved from the Water,” with a sense of purpose in the lovely “Restoration,” and in so many others. During the times when Wong allows the motif to swell into a statement for the full orchestra, often using brass and strings and sometimes even a choir, the effect is just magical.

Much of the rest of the score oscillates between the styles introduced in the opening cue. There are numerous additional comedy moments, including the jazzy and peppy “Video Games,” the bombastically Prokofiev -inspired and amusing “Burnt Forest” and the subsequent “Workshop Mayhem,” which even adopts a faux-Caribbean beat featuring marimbas and sampled steel drums. “Destroying the Garden” has a swooping, swirling, waltz-like neoclassical sound that is just delightful. “Mysteriously Fixed” brings back the prancing Prokofiev stylings. “Multiplying Fish” is raucous and wry in equal measure, and finishes with a wonderful flurry of classical strings.

Emotional moments include the moving string and piano tenderness in “Mother,” representing the loss Hung feels following her death. The gorgeous writing for poignant pianos and guitars in the aforementioned “Look Up to the Sky,” the reprise of the mother material in the expressive “Remembering Mother,” and then again in the subsequent “Moon Cake Story,” allow the score to retain its heart.

The brilliant “Sunworld” allows Maika’s theme to really soar, and this cues ushers in a change in the score’s overall tone, as for the final thirty minutes or so the score mostly drops much of the light and playful comedy and instead fully embraces a more rousing and exciting action-adventure style that is just superb. “Space Club House,” “Escape the Tower,” and especially the brilliant “The Chase” are notably excellent action tracks, and the way Wong layers Maika’s theme into this dynamic music is very impressive. I especially love the staccato brass writing and vigorous horn triplets in the second half of “Escape the Tower,” the unexpected dissonance in “Not Real,” and the fantastic rhythmic string writing that underpins all of “The Chase”. At times, the jazzy orchestrations and Latin arrangements in the latter make the whole thing sound like a Vietnamese take on Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible, crossed with Christophe Beck’s Ant Man, which is just fantastic. It ends with an impossibly catchy circus beat, a raucous calliope tune backed by strings and brass, which I can’t stop listening to.

The final three cues – “Believe Me,” “Departure,” and “Forever in My Heart and Goodnight” – are the ones where Wong abandons all traces of restraint and really ramps up the emotional content to the maximum. “Believe Me” is actually a quite serious and intense action cue with a powerful brass element embedded around sweeping statements of Maika’s theme. “Departure” begins with grace and delicacy, Maika’s theme for woodwinds, which eventually emerge into majestic string swells. The lithe, expressionistic writing that flits between solo violin and solo flute is pure James Horner, and the whole thing feels like a combination of the finales from E.T. and Cocoon in all the best ways; obviously, it’s not quite to that level of iconic magnitude, but you can certainly tell what they were going for. “Forever in My Heart and Goodnight” is pure emotion, moving and sentimental and underpinned with a bittersweet sense of loss that both celebrates Hung’s relationship with his alien friend, while lamenting their parting.

There are perhaps just a few small criticisms one can make of the score. The first – and this is purely selfish on my part – is the fact that the sensational adventure theme heard in the first cue “King of the Skies” never comes back; the theme is so brilliant, and the fact that they never use it again feels like a terrible missed opportunity. The second is the fact that, although the score is credited to the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra, and large parts of it are clearly fully instrumental, there are also parts of it that were clearly rendered with a synthetic sampled orchestra, and these stand out like a sore thumb. Obviously I know about budget issues and time pressures, but the fact is that some of it sounds really quite badly electronic, and some people may have a little issue with that. Finally, some people have criticized the score for being too like E.T. in places, which I can maybe understand if you value originality above all else, but speaking personally, anything which gets anywhere close to emulating that score is going to work for me.

Beyond those few minor issues, though, Maika is a triumph. It’s bold, adventurous, funny, and has heart and depth. The themes are striking and memorable, the orchestrations are rich and varied, and the whole thing ends with a huge emotional high. I really don’t know how many more times I have to write this sentence before someone does something about it, but here it is again: Christopher Wong, Garrett Crosby, and Ian Rees are three of the best and most exciting young composers working in film music today, and the fact that no-one outside Vietnam seems to recognize this is beyond my comprehension. Get one, or all, of them a mainstream Hollywood project, and do it now.

Buy the Maika soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • King of the Skies (4:40)
  • Mother (2:46)
  • Video Games (1:33)
  • Look Up to the Sky (2:45)
  • Pesky Fly (1:44)
  • Saved from the Water (2:44)
  • Burnt Forest (1:54)
  • Workshop Mayhem (1:41)
  • Helpful Neighbor (2:04)
  • Destroying the Garden (0:55)
  • Remembering Mother (1:26)
  • Defending the Workshop (1:35)
  • Restoration (2:02)
  • Mysteriously Fixed (3:30)
  • Cygnus (2:23)
  • Multiplying Fish (2:32)
  • Sunworld (2:57)
  • Moon Cake Story (3:14)
  • Space Club House (1:35)
  • Escape the Tower (4:03)
  • Samurai Honor (2:11)
  • Not Real (1:06)
  • Arming Up (1:46)
  • The Chase (5:28)
  • Stubbles (2:45)
  • Believe Me (2:48)
  • Departure (2:17)
  • Forever in My Heart and Goodnight (3:45)

Running Time: 70 minutes 11 seconds

Moviescore Media MMS-22020 (2022)

Music composed by Christopher Wong. Conducted by Viktor Ilieff. Performed by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Rey Martinez. Additional music by Garrett Crosby and Ian Rees. Recorded and mixed by Dan Viafore. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Christopher Wong and Mikael Carlsson.

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