Badass Teens Cruise The Streets In 'Rebels Of The Neon God'
The first feature of one of the preeminent directors of East Asian art cinema never got the chance to land stateside until now, but 20 years later its themes of urban isolation and youthful ennui still reverberate. Tsai Ming-liang's 1992 debut, stylishly titled in English as Rebels of the Neon God, finally graces screens in America just a year after what was supposed to be his last feature (2014's Stray Dogs, one of our favorite movies of last year). Although sparse in dialogue or action, it packs a hefty punch.Throbbing electronic bass lines, reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's work for David Lynch or proto-punk duo Suicide, intermittently punctuate Rebels, as it follows four youngsters in early 90s Taipei, awkwardly coming of age along with Tsai's home country of Taiwan. Although the film stars Tsai's muse and artistic partner Lee Kang-sheng—who has appeared in every one of Tsai's 10 features—as Hsiao Kang, a teenager who drops out of cram school against his parents' wishes, the bulk of the screentime is afforded to two petty hoodlums (Chen Chao-jung and Jen Chang-ben) and a doting 20-year old who can't keep herself away from the young punks (Wang Yu-wen). Each of the four characters is filled with pent up frustration, on the verge of impetuous violence or inhumanity towards each other.
The characters in Rebels spend more time starting at electronic screens, be it a television of a Street Fighter arcade game, than each other, as if Tsai foresaw our 21st century predicament a decade early. In a society growing so fast that people are being crammed together, individuals grow further apart. It's out of a seemingly innate yearning for just a touch or a connection to another person that drives these four youths to rash decisions.
Tsai, much like his Taiwanese New Wave predecessor Hou Hsiao-hsien, has a keen eye for capturing the malaise of Taiwanese urbanites, and does so with compositions that are more poetic and abstract. The digital restoration from Big World Pictures, who also brought us Rohmer's A Summer's Tale last year, is faithful to the gritty look and feel of the film stock it was shot on and looks gorgeous.
Although he would go on to greater highs with films as Goodbye Dragon Inn and Stray Dogs, Rebels was the calling card that marked the emergence of one of the most major filmmakers of both the 20th and 21st century.
Rebels of the Neon God is now playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.