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Rebels of the Neon God (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 24, 2015

I didn’t ever expect to watch this a third time, but it came out in a Taiwanese Blu-Ray set of Tsai’s early films so I felt I should take the opportunity to give it a fresh look.  And the truth is, even though Tsai’s first feature is by far his most conventional, it’s not bad at all.  In a nutshell, the story concerns two petty thieves, Tze (Chao-jung Chen) and his sidekick Ping (Chang-bin Jen).  Tze develops an interest in his brother’s girlfriend Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang).  Meanwhile, Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) is following them around, seemingly fascinated by them.  He’s dropped out of his exam study course and spends his days motoring around on his scooter, shadowing Tze.

In essence, this is Tsai’s version of Days of Being Wild or A Brighter Summer Day.  It’s a “restless youth” movie with characters wandering aimlessly, joylessly absorbing cheap nighttime thrills in roller rinks and arcades and food courts.  But Tsai is Tsai, and his distinctive stamps are emerging here.  The casting of Lee, of course, not to mention Tien Miao and Yi-Ching Lu as his parents (and in the same apartment that will appear in future films).  There’s probably more dialogue here than in any subsequent movie, but it’s still pretty minimal, especially for Lee.  We have the appearance of water invading the home, in this case incessantly rising up from the drain in Tze’s kitchen.

Most significantly, there is the theme of alienation, loneliness, lack of connection.  Whether Hsiao-Kang is infatuated with Tze or merely wants to be part of his little gang is unclear, but he doesn’t know how to insinuate himself into Tze’s world.  His best strategy is to destroy Tze’s bike, a plan which has far from the desired effect.  Hsiao-kang also has no connection with his family… his mother thinks of him as the incarnation of a mischievous god, and his father’s attempts to bond are thwarted.  As for the others, they ostensibly have each other, but not really.  Ping is made to feel like a fifth wheel.  Kuei feels used and rejected.  Tze appears to be comfortable, but ultimately longs for something deeper.

The film gets a little melodramatic (for Tsai, anyway) towards the end and the repeated synthesized-bass riff on the soundtrack gets old fast.  But I found myself more engaged than I expected to be, maybe because I had forgotten most of it.  There are some wonderful scenes, especially the arcade burglary and the bike vandalism.  The cinematography is beautiful, particularly in showcasing all the multi-colored neon lights and video screens.  And I like how the film ends on a note of hope.  That’s another common Tsai motif: as much as he seems to despair for humanity’s ability to love one another, he still thinks we have a chance to get it right.  This remains my least favorite feature of his, but only because the others are so distinctive.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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