Director Cheng Hsiao-Tse makes a solid debut with Miao Miao, telling the age-old story of two girls and their innocent discoveries with first love. High school student Miao Miao (Ke Jia-Yan) is Chinese but was raised in Japan, and has transferred to Taipei for one special school year. Her quiet demeanor and awkward prettiness make her immediately attractive to classmates and strangers, but it's the sassy Xiao-Ai (Sandrine Pinna) who cracks her shell. The two become fast friends, palling around after school and in class, where Miao Miao's baking skills make her a hit with her classmates. For Miao Miao and Xiao-Ai, it seems that life is innocent, idyllic and pretty darn swell.
However, Miao Miao finds first love when she falls for sullen CD shop owner Chen Fei (Fan Chih-Wei), who's forever shutting out the world with a pair of headphones. Xiao-Ai helps Miao Miao to quietly wriggle her way into Chen-Fei's life, but finds herself falling for her best pal too, leading to an extra layer of tension in their already tumultuous young lives. Meanwhile, Chen Fei searches high and low for a rare CD demo that has something to do with his sad, haunted past. Will Miao Miao achieve her dream date with Chen Fei? Will Xiao-Ai ever confess her love to Miao Miao? And will Chen Fei ever find his missing CD and/or crack a smile? Fulfillment of all these goals is not possible, but even without a happily-ever-after ending, these youngsters may find something precious and memorable. Cue Mando-pop montage.
Miao Miao looks and feels like quality cinema, and it's understandable why that is. Produced by Stanley Kwan and Jet Tone Films (Wong Kar-Wai's production company), Miao Miao has fine cinematography from Kwan Pun-Leung (The Postmodern Life of My Aunt) and boasts William Cheung Suk-Ping (too many Wong Kar-Wai movies to mention) as its editor. The payoff of working with these professionals is obvious; Kwan creates an attractive vision of urban Taipei, highlighting its modernity while also giving it a unique and colorful character. Cheung edits the film smartly, the pacing and rhythm of the film easily conveying the youthful spirit, fluctuating moods, and burgeoning maturity of its characters. For an attempt at audience-friendly pop art, this is a solid and excellent effort.
It's also not a very original one. The film possesses a conventional narrative and unremarkable themes, all wrapped up in an MTV art film package that screams "film fest friendly". Miao Miao doesn't truly explore sexuality or love, and only skims on the surface of its subject matter. Much of the detail is diverting but needlessly quirky, and various devices meant to flesh out the characters feel somewhat manufactured. Miao Miao ultimately does nothing that hasn't been done before in films like Blue Gate Crossing or Eternal Summer. Movies like this - that is, slice-of-life dramas tackling sexuality and love in a glossy and sometimes superficial manner - are practically their own genre in Taiwan, and Miao Miao doesn't do much to set itself part from the pack.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Miao Miao is pleasing and very watchable for what it is. The leads are effective and also attractive; Sandrine Pinna and Fan Chih-Wei bring the appropriate emotion to their roles, and are believable even when carrying cloying situations and backstories. Ke Jia-Yan is the standout, partly because of her quietly winning performance but also because of her ordinary yet striking beauty. Her character is also given cloying personal details, but again, the filmmaking seems to smooth over the narrative's essential banality. Despite the unremarkable story, director Cheng Hsiao-Tse delivers a charming and very pleasing little film that satisfies due to its familiar emotions and lack of self-importance. Miao Miao is a perfectly fine entry in this genre, and is so well made that overlooking its flaws is not hard at all. (Kozo, Reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2008)