Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Chao-jung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chang-bin Jen, Tien Miao, Lu Yi-Ching
Written by: Tsai Ming-liang
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 06/26/2015

Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All of the Lights

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Over the past few decades, Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has made some of the strangest and most fascinating films in the world, including The River (1997), What Time Is It There? (2001), and Goodbye Dragon Inn (2004). But for whatever reason, his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), has never been released in the United States until now. A 2015 restoration, part of a retrospective of Tsai's work, has been making its way around the country. For Tsai's fans, it's both happily familiar and slightly disappointing; it shows the director already tackling some of his favorite themes, but also not yet fully-formed. Yet for fans of arthouse cinema, it's easily the most interesting thing to come along in some time.

The movie opens with one of Tsai's trademark rainstorms, the sounds of water pattering everywhere and images of flooding apartments. We also see the familiar, much younger, face of Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), who appears more or less as the same character in most of Tsai's films. Hsiao-kang is mainly a watcher in this movie; most of the plot is centered around Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung), and his pal Ah Bing (Jen Chang-bin). They ride their motorbikes around town and make their living stealing coins out of phone booths (remember them?) and various other machines, as well as breaking into arcades at night, stealing motherboards and selling them.

Ah Tze overhears Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-wen) having sex and becomes interested in her himself, pursuing her and ignoring her in equal measure. Ah Bing doesn't seem to mind one way or another; he just likes the way she smells, and when they go to the movies, he asks for her to be seated in the middle so he can "enjoy" her. (Tsai connects this notion of disconnected pleasure with Ah Tze masturbating to the sounds of sex coming through his walls.) Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang is supposed to be taking classes to prepare him for exams, but instead he quits, collects a refund, and begins following the friends around town. In one funny scene, he becomes locked in an arcade overnight after the friends have burgled several machines.

Hsiao-kang's parents (Lu Yi-ching and Miao Tien) are here, and would likewise go on to be in later films. They find out about his classes and spend most of the movie expressing their displeasure with him. He has no real connection with them. In one scene, his father, a cab driver, decides to play hooky with his son and go to the movies. ("I haven't watched a movie in years," he says.) But when he honks at Ah Tze in traffic, Ah Tze smashes the side mirror on the cab, and the father decides to cancel the outing. But the mirror smashing brings up the movie's other big event: Hsiao-Kang getting his revenge by vandalizing Ah Tze's bike.

Throughout its running time, Rebels of the Neon God mirrors other movies; Hsaio-kang pauses to gaze at a picture of James Dean, or holds a pellet gun like Travis Bickle. The characters long for something, though they're perhaps not quite sure what. The "neon god" of the title is Taiwan itself, here represented as a series of blinking, twittering arcades, stores with electronic machines in front, or the roller rink where Ah Kuei works. In one scene, Hsiao-kang goes skating, and blankly makes a couple of loops, killing time more than he is having fun. In another scene, Ah Tze absently drops a coin into a machine that takes some kind of reading of his hand (it flashes lights and makes noise, but we never see any outcome).

Our "rebels," of course, are the ones who break into or dismantle the machines. Yet none of these characters seems able to escape or find a real definition of who they actually are. When Hsiao-kang gets his revenge, he bounces on his bed until he conks his head on the ceiling and then realizes that his momentary victory has turned into... nothing.

It's striking to think of the 23 years that have passed since this film was made, the drastic increase in "neon," with cell phones, the internet, and laptop computers joining in, making the walls of this prison even higher, the notion of identity even more diffuse. Moreover, we know that Hsiao-kang will very simply grow older, rarely able to make a stand or get a grip on his life. (Tsai is a fan of, and has paid tribute to, Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series.) But Tsai maintains his deadpan view of the world, able to see the hilarious bigger picture of it all, and inviting us to join him.

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