For more than two decades now, Tsai Ming-liang has been a luminary of world cinema. Few other filmmakers of his generation can lay claim to as many plaudits on the festival circuit and appearances on top-ten lists as the Taiwanese auteur. But until now, virtually no American viewers have had a chance to see his 1992 debut, Rebels of the Neon God. Finally receiving a proper theatrical release in the US 23 years after it was made, it's an expectedly fitting introduction to Tsai's singular style and a haunting work.
Tsai is nearly as fond of rain as Akira Kurosawa was, so much of Rebels takes place during or after a downpour. Apartments are flooded, the street is always wet, but no one ever makes much mention of it—this is the norm. He emphasizes the most cramped, claustrophobic elements of Taipei. Whether riding through the damp streets or losing a game of Street Fighter at the arcade, Tsai's adolescent protagonists feel at once detached from, and bound to, the dense urban environment. The more they try to mentally escape it via video games or petty thievery, the more it closes in on them. Early on we see young Hsiao-kang walk into an overcrowded classroom where he's studying for entrance exams, lost among a throng of other aspiring students. Here and elsewhere, he's all but faceless.
Though his family is Chinese and he was born in Malaysia, Tsai has come to be regarded as a quintessential Taiwanese filmmaker through such works as Vive L'Amour, What Time Is It There?, and last year's Stray Dogs. He came of age as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were putting their country on the cinematic map, a tradition he's carried on proudly.
Rebels is hardly Tsai's only film about people feeling lost and lonely in Taipei, but he is able to explore the same idea in several different ways without it feeling as though he's repeating himself. It also isn't the only one starring frequent collaborator Lee Kang-sheng, who plays Hsiao-kang here. It's easy to see why. Lee is able to maximize his relatively few lines of dialogue, emoting so much as he navigates the streets of his city and looks for something fulfilling (or at least distracting) to occupy his time. Eventually he notices Ah-tze, who along with a friend is often getting into trouble.
For a while, these two threads are mostly separate from one another. Hsiao-kang and Ah-tze will pass by each other on the street—Ah-tze on his scooter, Hsiao-kang in the passenger seat of his father's car. And though one vehicle ends up with a broken side-view mirror, there's no meaningful interaction between the two. Tsai's characters are at their loneliest when they're in closest physical proximity to the people they're distant from emotionally.
On the wall of an arcade where the two youths spend much of their time hangs a huge poster of James Dean, a towering symbol of cool and a reminder of how much more exciting life is on the big screen. At one point early on, Hsiao-kang's father speaks excitedly of his plans to go to the movies as a family—something they haven't done in years. Their minor car accident puts those plans to rest and sours his mood. There'll be no escaping the mundane by watching the glamorous lives of others—Hsiao-kang will have to find another way to pass the time.
As if to balk at the notion of cinematic escapism, Rebels of the Neon God is a haltingly naturalistic portrayal of urban isolation. Any viewers who already feel as detached as Hsaio-kang won't find the refuge they might in Rebel Without a Cause, though Tsai's take on adolescent confusion is no less convincing. The bright, flashing lights of the arcade couldn't match the characters' inner lives any less.
The title is a reference to Nezha, the mischievous neon god whom Hsiao-kang's mother believes he is a reincarnation of. He jumps and dances around their small apartment as though he were possessed, scaring his mother and confusing his father. As if to further live up to that dubious distinction, he drops out of cram school without telling his parents and keeps the refund money for himself, spiraling even further away from where he should be and toward a collision with Ah-tze.
Though this may sound quite dour, there's a humor to Tsai's sensibility that cuts through the taedium vitae. There's also a hauntingly catchy score with a repetitive bass line that gets stuck in your head and comes to define the overall feeling of Rebels of the Neon God: rhythmic and dark, but never quite despairing.
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