Film appreciation: Tsai Ming-liang's Rebels of the Neon God
1992 debut by leader of Taiwan's 'second new wave' of directors introduced modern urban themes to art house audiences more used to a historical perspective on the issue of Taiwanese identity
Tsai Ming-liang is the best known of Taiwan's "second new wave" of art house directors, and his filmmaking career has lasted for more than 20 years. That achievement could not have been predicted from Rebels of the Neon God, his 1992 feature debut.
Rebels was a straightforward slice of neo-realist filmmaking that was mainly notable for introducing modern urban stories into a local art house scene concerned with identity issues raised by Taiwanese history. Viewed again today, it's a neatly made drama which serves as a prelude to the concerns of Tsai's later movies, and introduces some of his recurring symbolic content. The then-new actor Lee Kang-sheng, who plays a student here, acts in all of Tsai's other features.
Tsai had tackled social issues in television segments prior to Rebels, and he brought some of that experience to the film. The story links four young characters: a student, two petty criminals, and a young woman who works at a skating rink. The two young hustlers drift around Taipei trying to make money from minor acts of thievery, and strike up a relationship with the girl. The student, whose parents are unhappy with his casual attitude to life, interacts with them when they break his cab-driver father's wing mirror.
Rebels has more of a narrative than Tsai's later works, but it's still very diffused, with the director filming scenes that express the urban ennui of its characters rather than advance the plot. The kids don't have much money, and don't hold out much hope for their futures. Lack of opportunity leads to urban drift, and they spend their time wandering the city and visiting love hotels and video game parlours. Tsai bathes the exteriors in soft neon light, making for a druggy, nightmarish atmosphere.
Debut films are usually about getting to know the ropes, but Rebels is a blueprint for Tsai's future movies. The theme of urban alienation was approached head-on in his next film, the Antonioni-esque Vive L'amour, and over the course of his career, it mutated into an existential analysis of the distance between people. Symbolic events, such as flooding, turn up again in later works, as do the references to Taoism.
Rebels of the Neon God, August 8, 5pm, agnès b. Cinema, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai. Part of the Summer International Film Festival