'Rebels of the Neon God' Is Teenaged Angst Portrayed Perfectly
Tsai-Ming Liang's debut is compelling, beautiful, understated and undeniably stylish.
Rebels of the Neon GodDirector: Tsai-Ming Liang
Cast: Chao-jung Chen, Chang-bin Jen, Kang-sheng Lee
Distributor: Big World Pictures
Studio: Central Motion Pictures
US Release Date: 2015-10-27
Disillusioned youth. Neon lights cutting through labyrinthine Asian cityscapes. Longing. Ming-liang Tsai seems to have borrowed a canvas from Kar-wai Wong, but it’s an equally true statement to say that Kar-wai borrowed from Ming-liang’s canvas. Rebels of the Neon God, Ming-liang’s first feature after a string of Taiwanese telefilms, deals in evocative, naturalistic images that conjure up the feelings of isolation and ennui shared by the main characters. It does so through intimate moments, visually-striking scenes, and a notable soundtrack that consists of a catchy, yet minimalist theme.
Rebels of the Neon God deals with two stories that separate and intertwine seamlessly. The first is about Hsiao Kang (Kang-sheng Lee), an almost mute boy with a fraught relationship with his father and a desire to escape his cram school. The second follows two petty thieves, Ah Tze ( Chao-jung Chen) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen), and the relationship that Ah Tze forms with Ah Kuei (Yu-wen Wang), a shopaholic girl that seems to spend most of her days working at a roller disco.
Ming-liang takes us through Taipei in a dreamlike, fluid fashion, going from a waterlogged apartment to an arcade, to a roller disco. The drab ennui of the leads is contrasted by the pulsing postmodernism of an Asia growing enamored with technology. Clearly ahead of his time, Ming-liang links technology to a growing isolation. The arcade, which is the site of multiple scenes of the film, functions as an example of this. Ah Tze and Ah Bing are there together, but are ultimately alone -- consumed by their games.
In another scene, Ah Tze and Ah Kuei have sex next to a TV set that depicts people having sex. The characters’ aimlessness and alienation is the result of a large, seemingly uncaring city, as well as a lack of meaningful relationships. Relationships are supplanted by the simulation, so that when Ah Tze and Ah Kuei have sex, it's unclear whether or not it's an organic evolution of their relationship or simply a case of do-as-I-see, an emulation of what they’ve picked up on through media.
The camerawork feels wonderfully natural, and although there are no explicit flourishes of style, there is nevertheless a stylistic element that echoes the best of Hong Kong cinema. After all, Hong Kong film dominated the Taiwanese film market through the '80s, and it’s due to government film grants aiming to create a national cinema that fellow Taiwanese second wave directors like Edward Yang and Hsiao-hsien Hou got their start.
Despite the fact that the film has more in common with a film like Bicycle Thieves, it’s hard to ignore that snippets of Rebels of the Neon God feel downright like a John Woo film. As Ah Tze and Ah Bing drive motorcycles through the night, winding through cars on neon-lit streets, and the repetitive and menacing bass theme plays in the background, one expects to see a car chase. Or, in another example, a foot chase through a busy market and the ensuing fistfight feels like it belongs in the opening of a Ringo Lam picture.
This melding of style is done subtly and deliberately. Like a block of shops cluttered with neon signs to the point where one does not know where to go, the experience of these youths is a similar blend of disparate media influences coalescing together into an experience that is both cohesive and disjointed. It always feels like Rebels of the Neon God, but its individual parts reveal a playfulness of disparate styles from art-house to action.
Rebels of the Neon God is Ming-liang coming out of the gate swinging, establishing himself as a formidable filmic force. The use of style, the characterization, and the philosophical depth of thought present in the film seem indicative of a more seasoned director, even though by this time Ming-liang only had a string of TV movies to his name. The acting feels incredibly natural, especially from Ming-liang regular Kang-sheng, although Yu-wen’s performance is also quite skilled.
If there’s a bad thing to say about this film, it’s that it doesn’t always feel fully formed. But then, it’s not always supposed to -- it’s a snapshot of city stories, imperfect renderings of infinitely complex lives -- and it’s done incredibly well.
The newest DVD release of the film comes from an HD restoration put out by Big World Pictures, but it’s unfortunate that there is no Blu-Ray option to speak of. Picture quality is decent, although there's a disappointing lack of extras -- all you get is a theatrical trailer.