A bright piece of high school romantic fluff with strong gay undertones that's still a refreshing antidote to the usual navel-gazing dramas of friendship and sexual identity Taiwan has become famous for.

Either halfway into the closet or halfway out of it, depending on your point of view, “Miao Miao” is a bright piece of high school romantic fluff with strong gay undertones that’s still a refreshing antidote to the usual navel-gazing dramas of friendship and sexual identity Taiwan has become famous for. Actually funded by Hong Kong coin — Wong Kar-wai’s Block 2 Pictures/Jet Tone and the local branch of Beijing’s JA Movies — but directed by Taiwanese feature freshman Cheng Hsiao-tse, this combo of offshore Chinese talent reps a handsome, smoothly assembled exercise with some audience-pleasing potential beyond fest ghettos.

Shen Ai-yuan (Chinese-French actress Sandrine Pinna, aka Chang Yung-yung) is a vaguely rebellious middle-class teen who lives with her father and is always late for class. Into her life swims the quiet Dai Si Shi-miao, aka Miao-miao (Ke Jia-yan), an exchange student from Japan who turns out to be ethnically Chinese, born in Taiwan.

The two girls bond and slowly get to know Chen Fei (Wing Fan, aka Fan Chih-wei) who runs a cozy little CD shop, reads Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and is in a perpetual funk over the death of a colleague in a band he used to play in. As Miao-miao takes a special liking to him, while still pining for her adopted country, Ai-yuan gets a bad attack of jealousy that her best buddy has been stolen from her.

In an Asian context, the film can be read — and safely marketed in the region — as a simple tale of distaff friendship, with all the tensions attendant on hormonal teenage girls forming intense, short-term relationships. But there’s much more going on beneath the surface for auds who care to look: Pic plays more like a Sapphic love story (undeclared lesbian falls for straight girl) that’s been toned down for a general audience than a teen romancer that’s been juiced up with lesbian grace notes.

The confusion also extends to the backstory of Chen, who could be read as an undeclared gay guy. Flashbacks limn his friendship with the dead band member, who declares his love for Chen one day but gets no response.

That apart, pic maintains a breezy tone that is very likable, and manages to sustain the paper-thin plot through sheer technical packaging. Pinna (lesbian meller “Candy Rain,” biking movie “The Road in the Air”) nicely projects her character’s emotional confusion without tipping into melodrama, and Ke (“Do Over”) maintains a dreamy detachment that also mirrors Miao-miao’s own. As the enigmatic Chen, Fan is just OK.

Miao Miao

Hong Kong

Production

A Block 2 Pictures, JA Movies (Hong Kong) presentation of a Jet Tone production. (International sales: Fortissimo, Hong Kong.) Produced by Stanley Kwan, Jacky Pang. Executive producers, Wong Kar-wai, Kwan, Pang. Directed by Cheng Hsiao-tse. Screenplay, Even Tsai, Cheng; script consultant, Jimmy Ngai.

Crew

Camera (color), Kwan Pun-leung; editor, William Chang; music, Cin Cin Li; art director, Chan Ka-ki; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-chi, Kuo Li-chi, Tang Shiang-ju. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 3, 2008. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Ke Jia-yan, Sandrine Pinna, Wing Fan, Chris Wu, Qu Zhong-heng. (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)

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