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Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1992)


    In Rebels of the Neon God, his remarkably strong first full-length feature film, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang immediately taps into the theme that has so far dominated his work. The subject at hand here is the disconnected despair that results from urban decay. Using very little camera movement and a good deal of humor, pathos, and rained out cityscapes, the director crafts an enjoyable, fast-paced, but still poignant, look at modern loneliness. In tracing the hijinks of three troublemaking teenage boys and the people closest to them, the director creates a story that feels larger than it might actually be. By repeatedly showing the young hoodlum Ah Bing as he trudges out of the bed in his waterlogged apartment, Tsai establishes the repetitiveness of the boys’ shiftless routines. By following them into video arcades, filled with countless youth, obviously in the same state of mind, he presents their condition as a national epidemic.


    Every facet of Rebels’ visual design seems to exist solely to criticize the ugly overkill of metropolitan sprawl. Excess signage, written in both Chinese and English for added visual impact, dominates the Taipei streets to the extent that the buildings they hang on are barely visible. Bike racks, classrooms, and roadways are all overcrowded jumbles of activity.  The video arcades and roller rinks that serve as venues for enjoyment can only distinguish themselves from the cacophony of the real world by cranking up the levels of the visual and aural stimulants that they offer to even more unreal heights. Small hints of traditional culture exist here and there, but since it is made to compete against the flashy and new, it inevitably feels marginalized. The apartments that supposedly offer refuge from all this are nondescript, functional husks, devoid of much personality outside of one’s distinctive choice in television programming. Perhaps worst of all, the unstoppable flooding that fills one character’s floor on a nightly basis seems to suggest that the tide of the outside world won’t even allow this space to exist without the tide of external influence.


    Rebels’ plot focuses most intently on the gradual, inevitable social withdrawal of Hsaio Kang (played by nonprofessional actor Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in each of Tsai’s subsequent features), a young slacker who still lives with his discontented parents. Seemingly friendless at the start of the film, he only recedes further into his insular world as the movie progresses. Each attempt that he makes to reach out to another, whether it’s his father, a peer, or a girl, is impeded, resulting in what feels like his nearly total emotional isolation. By the time the film has built to its chilling climax, it has presented in its main character a veritable plethora of antisocial behavior. Because Tsai does such an excellent job of examining the environment that Hsaio Kang lives in, however, his transgressions disturbingly seem less the actions of a social deviant than of a person who is responding to his surroundings in the way that his world has conditioned him to.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman