Rebels of the Neon God Dir. Tsai Ming-liang

[Big World Pictures; 1992]

Styles: drama
Others: Stray Dogs, Days of Being Wild, Band of Outsiders

Rebels of the Neon God wanders languorously through life in modern day Taipei. Director Tsai Ming-Liang takes his time, but never bores the viewer in telling this story about youths navigating the uneasy terrain between one’s teenage years and adulthood. With a title like Rebels of the Neon God, perhaps one expects a Mad Max type fantasy epic, or indie-rock flamboyant protagonists, but instead the film is grounded in the mundane of the everyday.

Although originally released in 1992, a new digital restoration has brought this film to the US for the first time. As Tsai Ming-liang’s feature debut, Rebels of the Neon God lays a solid foundation for a body of work that brings the legacy of the New Wave (among other Western influences) into the context of Chinese cinema. Like many New Wave films, it proceeds at the pace of daily life. We feel like we’re in the room with the characters; every detail is noted with significance. We watch a young man, Hsiao-kang (played by Lee Kang-sheng, who has starred in all of Tsai Ming-liang’s successive movies) emotionally grinding under the pressure of studying in a test-preparation or cram school. As he stabs an unsuspecting cockroach with a drawing compass early on in the film, we get the impression that in spite of his scarcity of words, there are plenty of thoughts raging behind his hollow eyes. While at first he seems like a boring, quiet type, this impression only serves to heighten the bizarre behavior that unfolds upon overhearing his mother claim that a spiritual guide has identified him as the reincarnation of the Chinese “Neon God”, Nezha whose father sought to restrain his powers by locking him in a tower. Hsiao-Kang seems to take this as a sign to break free from the invisible, yet overbearing, chains of his parents’ and society’s expectations. His outlet takes the form of seeking revenge upon a young man on a motorcycle who smashes the mirror of his father’s taxi.

This young man, Ah-Tse, played by Chao-jung Chen appears to embody everything that Hsiao-Kang isn’t. With his tough guy attitude and the sexy girl, played by Yu-Wen Wang, riding on the back of his bike, he exudes a sense of freedom and power that Hsiao-Kang lacks. But looks can be deceiving. As we observe Ah-Tse in his roach-infested, beer-can strewn apartment and follow him on his excursions of petty crime with his best friend Ah-Bing (Chang-bin Jen), one feels pity instead of admiration towards his pathetic living conditions. Sucking on a used cigarette butt in in his sad, hopeless state, he seems to have more in common with his unknown enemy Hsiao-kang than either of them realize: both are caged creatures looking for something to rebel against. As we watch the two characters unravel for their own reasons, the film gradually builds a case for why young people lose it and commit violent acts, whether they are rich, middle-class, or poor. On his way up to his apartment, the elevator in Ah-Tse’s building always glitches, opening the doors at floor 4 — a number symbolizing death in Chinese culture — before arriving at his floor, lucky number 8. And so it is for him in life, flowing back and forth from lucky to unlucky circumstances, concluding with his interactions with the vengeful Hsiao-Kang.

Journeying through the grittier side of Taipei — through musty love hotels, tenements, and street markets — the film revels in the unabashedly grime-filled beauty of the city and basks itself in melancholy. By the time the credits roll, the audience is caught off guard. Having drifted into a state of dreamy loneliness, we are left feeling slightly lost and unfulfilled — not unlike the characters of the film.

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