Sundance Highlights Speculative Storytelling From Southeast Asia

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival has come to a close, following 11 days of presenting in-depth films and conversations from all over the world, for an audience that was originally supposed to be a hybrid one. While there was so much in store in terms of new works, a major takeaway yours truly got from attendance is that there are quite a few speculative works arising from Southeast Asia, and Sundance made the world premieres possible for two of them: Ham Tran’s Maika and Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die.

Truong Phu and Chu Diep Anh appear in Maika by Ham Tran, an official selection of the Kids section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Minh Cong Trang.

Tran, the seasoned director known for films such as How to Fight in Six Inch Heels and Hollow brings a touching, Vietnamese sci-fi story of friendship. Maika follows a young boy, Hung, a year following the death of his mother. In the aftermath of a meteor shower, he meets and befriends a young girl from outer space known simply as Maika. Together, they do whatever they can to get Maika home, while dealing with a greedy landlord, a wealthy scientist with questionable intentions, and Hung’s emotionally strained father along the way.

While the film drew upon inspiration from the 1978 show of the same name from Czechoslovakia, those who grew up in the 2000’s might find this latest work from Tran reminiscent of the Spy Kids films; for its humor, heart, adventure, and strong performances from the child actors. Although it may be targeted for kids, there is enough substance and story to go around for even the child at heart to get something from. The relationship between the likes of Hung and Maika, and later, Hung and his father, are the central plot points of this story, and knowing that Tran made this film following the death of his mother makes sense when every emotion expressed onscreen is felt wholeheartedly.

Sheila Francisco appears in Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar, an official selection of the World Cinema: Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Carlos Mauricio.

Maika marked Tran’s return to Sundance, but for Escobar, she made her debut with Leonor Will Never Die. While once a prominent filmmaker in the Filipino film industry (particularly in the action genre), Leonor Reyes is struggling to make ends meet when a screenwriting competition comes across her radar. She sees it as a sign as she hauls out a long, in-progress screenplay. However, when Leonor falls into a coma, she goes from being the storyteller to being part of the story itself, and in that process, looks to see how to conclude it.

Leonor Will Never Die (which, by the way, won Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Innovative Spirit) is best described as genre -bending in ways one wouldn’t expect. There’s comedy, there’s action, there’s ghosts (yes, really), and the boundaries between fiction and reality are tested towards the end. Not often do we see elder characters be the leads of their own stories, and the way Sheila Francisco as Leonor carried the film, one can’t help but cheer her on. It’s an homage to the Filipino action B-movies of the 70’s and 80’s, while showing how the hero, at the end of the day, is not the macho male protagonist, but the screenwriter giving it her all on a story that means a lot to her. It’s a film that’s not meant to be taken too seriously, but it does strongly deliver the message on how it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.

The U.S. audience have had an awakening in recent years to media from Asia, most notably from Korea. However, as Sundance has shown, there’s a lot more to see from other countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Both Maika and Leonor Will Never Die were highlights in speculative storytelling in film from Southeast Asia. It’s this Sundance attendee’s hope that these two films continue to gain traction as they make their rounds in the film festival circuit, while highly anticipating for more.

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