In a Taipei neighbourhood, the lives of two disaffected teenagers collide. Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) struggles through cram schools at his father’s insistence while growing steadily self-destructive. Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) is small-time thief who, along with his best friend Ah Ping (Jen Chang-bin) and girlfriend Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-wen), haunts the city’s arcades and night markets in search of fun – whether legal or otherwise. A petty act of vandalism links Ah Tze and Hsiao Kang together, as Hsiao Kang begins to impulsively stalk Ah Tze around the city.
Rebels of the Neon God, released back in 1992, is the directorial debut of widely acclaimed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang. Tsai’s reputation is for relatively oblique, artful films featuring long takes and minimal dialogue. While Rebels appears to be the most conventional of his feature works – at least, based on those I have seen – that general style is still fairly pronounced at this early stage. There is not a huge amount of plot to the film, but there is a sure-footed sense of place. Taipei in the early 1990s is a relatively gritty, industrialised place, and the wet rainy nights give the entire city a fairly claustrophobic and oppressive aesthetic.
Tsai does not seem particularly interested in making his characters sympathetic, but he does make them feel engaging and very real. The frustration expressed by Hsiao Kang is recognisable to anybody: pent-up, impatient and unhappy. In one early scene he sees a cockroach in his bedroom and skewers it with a compass. When he sees a second on his bedroom window he tries to hit it, and smashes the window and cuts his hand for his troubles. His overbearing father (an impressive Tien Miao) clearly does not understand his son at all, and instead manages to constantly threaten and berate him instead. Between the two of them it is a universally familiar fractured relationship between a late middle-aged father and a late teens son.
Ah Tze’s life seems more superficially free, but is still trapped by a prison of its own. He lives in a constantly flooded run-down apartment, requiring him to splash through two inches of water when he goes from room to room. He barely owns furniture, and spends most of his time playing videogames at a local arcade and driving around the streets on his motorcycle. His girlfriend Ah Kuei clearly wants a committed relationship from him, but he honestly seems too disaffected to hold down a committed relationship with anyone.
The film is shot entirely on location with hand-held cameras, giving it an immediate presence and almost visceral sense of place. The rain seems a constant thundering presence, particularly during the film’s numerous night-time scenes. The film’s general lack of dialogue adds to the atmosphere. When no one is talking, and the scenes are moving with a matter-of-fact slowness, there’s honestly little else to do but soak up the surrounds.
In one odd moment, Hsiao Kang’s mother (Lu Yi-Ching) confides to his father that their local priest believes Hsiao Kang is the reincarnation of Nezha, a disruptive child god who attempts to kill his own father in Chinese mythology. Given the film’s title one might assume that it is therefore Hsiao Kang who is the ‘neon god’, but to me it is pretty clear that the god is Taipei itself. If there is a geographical centre of the film, it is the local videogames arcade where both Hsiao Kang and Ah Tze seem to spend most of their time. Neither seems to have a way out of their current situation, but both rail against it in blunt, thoughtless ways. Tsai wisely chooses not to fully resolve their respective struggles: this is less of a story and more of a visit to a troubled and oppressive place.