REBELS OF THE NEON GOD (Ch’ing shaonien na cha)

(director/writer: Tsai Ming-liang; cinematographer: Pen-jung Liao; editor: Wang Chi Yang; music: Shu-Jun Huang; cast: Chao-jung Chen (Ah Tze), Chang-bin Jen (Ah Bing), Kang-sheng Lee (Hsiao Kang), (Hsiao-Ling Lu) (Mother), Tien Miao (Father), Yu-Wen Wang (Ah Kuei); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Li-Kong Hsu; Mongrel Media; 1992/Taiwan, in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles)

“It’s a dandy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I knew this was going to be a special film when the opening is so bizarrely startling. A teenager, Hsiao Kang (Kang-sheng Lee), encounters a cockroach in his room and sticks it with the point of a compass and tosses it out the window, only to have the wind blow the dead roach back onto the window. This gets the young man so angry he smashes the window pane and bloodies his hand.

This was Malaysia-born and now living in Taiwan writer/director Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature film. It’s a dandy. It has sparse dialogue and long stretches of silences. There are long tracking shots that stick like flypaper to the subjects who are relentlessly exposed with intensive close-ups, as the shots won’t easily peel away from the subject no matter how uncomfortable the situation. There’s no escape from the static camera, or for that matter from the bleak Taipei environment. This wonderfully huge and successful city is used as a background for the story to show how it can be such a cold and oppressive place to the disenfranchised and how it adversely affects its citizens. Both young and old seem to be trapped in a materialistic environment that gives them creature comforts but provides little solace for their inner being. “Rebels” focuses on the aimless young, whose only pleasure seems to be playing video arcade games and riding their motorbikes. Most of the shots are at night, or in the rain. Water has a significant symbolic meaning, as the modern urban dweller seems to ignore nature and pays a high price for that neglect.

Hsiao Kang is a troubled student attending a college tutorial program and lives in his own room in the nondescript apartment with his uncommunicative parents. His father (Tien Miao) is a hard working taxi driver, whom his son has no affection for. His mother (Hsiao-Ling Lu) has a kind nature but is clueless about what’s bothering her sullen son. Mother is also superstitious, and she has just returned from the Phoenix temple where the priestess has divined that the reason her son doesn’t get along with his father is because he’s the reincarnation of the destructive god Norcha who also rebelled against his father. The family never eats together, nor do they talk to each other, nor do they express any warm feelings for the other. The only sound in the room comes from the TV, where there are cartoons playing.

In a downtown arcade away from the residential area two young brothers who are petty thieves, Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) and the surlier Ah Tze (Chao-jung Chen), are spending the evening playing the noisy video games. The din from this entertainment seems to be equal to the noises from the street, as there seems to be no escape from the city. In the prologue before the credits, the brothers have in the rain just drilled through the locked collection box of the public telephone and stolen the money. They spend all their stolen money playing these addictive and mindless video games. After Hsiao Kang’s outburst at home, he goes to the same arcade with his bandaged hand and notices the two but doesn’t talk with them.

The next day Hsiao Kang becomes upset that his scooter is towed. His father gives him a ride when he spots him on the street. The father is in a festive mood and buys his son a meal from a street vendor and tells him that after they retrieve his scooter to cut classes that afternoon and join him at the movies. But in the tight traffic, the father gets angry and honks a scooter in front of him to move. This is Ah Tze’s scooter, and the youth who has an attractive female riding in the back seat reacts by angrily breaking the side-view mirror of the car and speeding off. This causes the father to get into a fender-bender with another vehicle, as Hsiao Kang impassively watches and says nothing even though he recognizes the boy from the arcade. When the movie date is called off, the unmotivated Hsiao Kang decides to drop-out of the tutorial school and get a refund on his tuition money. He doesn’t tell this to his parents, and wanders the streets aimlessly for the next two nights. He uses some of the money to buy a pellet gun (possibly seeking revenge for the mirror incident). On one of those nights Hsiao Kang sleeps in the arcade and watches impassively as Ah Bing and Ah Tze sneak into the closed arcade and drill a hole in the arcade games and steal as many as ten boards.

The handsome but distant Ah Tze has attracted the interest of a pretty but unhappy twenty-year-old, Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), the same girl riding on his scooter. She works as a nighttime checker in a roller skating rink and uses a phone-dating service to get dates. Ah Kuei wants to look good, and even though she doesn’t make much money she spends most of it on clothes. When Ah Tze stands her up because he prefers robbing the arcade, he gets another chance when he runs into her again and sleeps over at her neat apartment.

While Hsiao Kang was wandering the streets he spotted Ah Kuei, whom he is attracted to but lacks the social skills to communicate with. He also spotted Ah Tze in the street and instinctively decides to get revenge by vandalizing his scooter, after all what is there to lose since the other boy has what he wants–a girl that he would like to be his. Hsiao Kang does a good job damaging the scooter, writing on it ‘AIDS’ and spray painting on the sidewalk that this is the work of Norcha.

Ah Tze is shaken when he discovers how badly his scooter was vandalized and feels he is a victim of bad luck, as he can’t see that he has created his own fate. Ah Tze values that material object more than he does the girl he just slept with.

Ah Tze is trapped in a depressing apartment and in an amoral way of life he can’t retreat from. To highlight how far removed Ah Tze is from being balanced, we see how he can’t deal with a severe water leak in his kitchen floor which he doesn’t have enough energy to fix.

When Ah Tze and Ah Bing go to fence the video boards at the same arcade it was stolen, they are identified as the culprits and the arcade enforcers give Ah Bing a wicked beating. Ah Tze escapes with minor bruises. The only thing Ah Bing cries out for in all his physical pain as he lies in their apartment, is that his brother get him a girl to give him a hug. It’s easier to get money in this city than it is to score a little love. In the film’s most powerful and awkward climactic scene, Ah Kuei comes by to see Ah Tze. She’s the only way for Ah Tze to escape, if he wasn’t so blind. The young girl is already weary of life and pleads with the unresponsive Ah Tze for them to “leave this place.” In her own inarticulate way, she recognizes that she’s part of a lost generation worshiping at the feet of Mammon. But, Ah Kuei, like all the other lost youths featured, doesn’t have the strength to act on her own.

The film ends with the loner Hsiao Kang just as alone as when the film began, riding aimlessly about in the night.

The insights and tender feelings that Tsai Ming-liang has for these alienated youths is brilliantly observed, in this startling and mesmerizing film. It is filled with pathos and a bizarre humor. The plight of these lost youths living in urban decay and searching for their identity is a universal problem, and Taipei serves as a metaphor for all such modern cities. I can’t think of a director who gets more into the heads of such hopeless youths as well as he does, and he really seems to care about them. The atmosphere might be grim, but the film is a pleasure. It’s an elegy to Fassbinder, someone Tsai was clearly influenced by, as it’s the passing of the baton from one great director to another.

Rebels of the Neon God Poster