Written and Directed by Ming-liang Tsai
Youth, homeless and under water.
More of a mood than a film, Tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God tells the story of two young men as they float downriver in big city life’s ennui. Grey skies blend with sky-reaching concrete towers, and in small ghostly apartments they both languish: Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) a schoolboy still living with his despairing parents, and Ah Tze (Chao-jung Chen), a small-time hoodlum who sleeps his days away and spends his nights knocking off phone booths for loose change he then blows on cigarettes and arcade games. The kids are not all right.
You could say they’re both looking for something. Ah Tze’s chasing a dollar, and some escapism, while Hsiao-Kang disenlists from school to slip out into the real world of who knows what. Common to them both is an interest in Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), the girlfriend of Ah Tze’s brother. Ah Tze juggles his feelings for her with apathy and dissociation while Hsiao-Kang watches her from afar, smitten but impotent.
But whatever half-hearted goals the two may have, Tsai has them both adrift in a foggy sea of inscrutable discontent, and the film heaps this onto the viewer by submitting to no clear narrative currents. The boys fall through life, plodding from one moment to the next, and it’s mirrored in a film that’s without thrust and vitality. You’re as stuck as these boys are.
With muted indoor colors, and equally cool cityscapes, Rebels of the Neon God feels like a depressive episode, and to watch Ah Tze and Hsiao-Kang drift through their lives untethered to anything resembling purpose is a sensation that doesn’t strike you as much as unsettle you.
Tsai makes the city a mental projection, offering no home base or discernible anchor points. Dense downpour creates walls before turning into equally suffocating fog and the boys sneak around a nighttime darkness. They stay in dingy hotel rooms, closets really, temporary hooks onto which they hang their hats, before slinking out in the grey of early dawn.
As an early Tsai film, Rebels of the Neon God is hard to shake and easy to admire, even if it doesn’t grip you all the way through. The feelings his characters grapple with are not easy to evoke and discuss in the wordless way Tsai favors, but he manages to do so using every bit of the frame that isn’t his characters’ faces. It makes for a film rich on emotional texture, a film you feel all around you even if your attention is directed elsewhere, a damp cold that grabs at your skin and seeps into your soul.