I approached my first viewing of 'Cute Girl' at a recent Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective with a hint of trepidation. Not only does the great Taiwanese director himself effectively disown his early works (he's long stated his artistic career truly started with 'The Boys From Fengkuei') but reading about the film's narrative (a sugary romantic musical with a dash of comedy thrown in) and contextual background (a commercial vehicle for pop star Kenny Bee, made for and by the mainstream studios)I really couldn't think of a work less suited to Hou.
The first film of many a great director has often been one to forget, bearing no resemblance in quality or style to the works in their oeuvre that would come to cement their legacy in the pantheon of the greats. This is perhaps why Hou insists that 'The Boys From Fengkuei' (a masterpiece, no less, and very much a 'Hou' film) was his true 'first film'. Yet, while 'Cute Girl' is by no means on the same level as that particular film, it is perfectly fine. I left the screening even more convinced of Hou's mastery, in fact. He was able to make a perfectly competent and never irritating or clunky film out of a fairly flimsy premise. I'm not quite confident enough to read into aspects of the film's style which appeared to reflect Hou's infamous aesthetic approach to cinema (one particular static shot that lasts over a minute in a restaurant was striking, as were the long, wandering shots over groups of farmers and schoolchildren alike in rural Taiwan) but nevertheless, I highly doubt all mainstream Taiwanese cinema pre-New Taiwan Cinema were so competently executed visually.
So, in sum, I enjoyed this film more than I expected, but I don't know how much credit can be attributed to Hou at this stage of his career and in such a tightly regulated commercial environment. The acting isn't terrible, the songs aren't particularly annoying and while the plot becomes far too ridiculous towards its end, and indeed meanders pointlessly to a unsatisfactory and obvious conclusion far too late in the story, there are some good scenes and the mood/tone of the piece is perfectly judged throughout. Don't take this film seriously, don't expect great things, and you will enjoy this film immensely!
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