Review: Tsai Ming-liang’s “Rebels of the Neon God”

One major element of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, remarked on by many commentators, is water; Tsai’s films are practically drenched with it. Water, in all its forms, courses through the films; in rainstorms, bottled water, toilets, flooding, bathtubs, and tears. It is omnipresent, yet mysterious and often menacing. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, or at all. In this way, the water in Tsai’s films is very much like the characters in them, who do many things, often in silence, that are as mysterious and inexplicable to us as to themselves. In Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), by far the most conventional (relatively speaking) of his nine features to date, many of the characteristics that are unique to his films can be found, despite a repetitive musical theme and a jarringly over-romanticized “let’s blow this town!” ending (both imposed on him by his producer, and thoroughly cleansed [washed?] away in his subsequent films).
Rebels of the Neon God marks the first screen appearance of Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of Tsai’s features, and usually functions as the brooding, melancholic matinee idol at its center. (A scene in Rebels in which Lee’s character contemplates a poster of James Dean, cements this status in his films.) Although this was Lee’s first theatrical film, it wasn’t his first collaboration with Tsai; he appeared in two of Tsai’s television films, All the Corners of the World and Boys. But Rebels offered Lee the first real showcase of the qualities that make him so magnetic and mesmerizing in the context of Tsai’s films. In the very first scene in which he appears, his character, Hsiao-kang (the name he is usually given in Tsai’s films, a variation on Lee’s own name) rocks back and forth listlessly, watching the rainstorm outside his window, paying no attention whatsoever to his studies, which he will soon end. Noticing a cockroach crawling near him, he picks it up and spears it with his protractor. He then throws the wounded insect out of the window; soon after, another bug (or perhaps the same one) appears outside the window. Hsiao-kang hits the window to make it go away, but breaks the window and cuts his hand. As he scurries to the bathroom, his overly doting mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) and his perpetually angry father (Miao Tien) rush over. “Don’t you have anything better to do with yourself?” his mother asks in exasperation. As it turns out, the answer is no, not really. All of Hsiao-kang’s subsequent actions come from the same inchoate impulse to hurt and inflict harm on others, much as he does to the poor cockroach that has the misfortune to cross his path. Later in the film, he graduates to inflicting harm – not directly, but by proxy – to a human being. Hsiao-kang’s mother believes she has an explanation for his nature; he is the reincarnation of the god Nezha, who was also unruly and hated his father. Hsiao-kang’s father thinks his wife is simply nuts, and sees his son as an unredeemable bad seed; and indeed, Hsiao-kang does very little to prove his father wrong.
Hsiao-kang’s story parallels that of another aimless youth, Ah-tse (Chen Chao-jung) who lives with his brother Ah-ping (Jen Chang-bin) in an apartment invaded and menaced by water; the floor is constantly flooded because of the stopped-up drain on the ground. Tsai finds some unlikely visual poetry in the image of slippers, cigarette butts, and crushed beer cans drifting lazily along the apartment floor. Ah-tse and Ah-ping spend many nights as petty thieves, robbing payphones of coins and arcade games of their motherboards, to fund playing video games and hanging out at bars and roller rinks. One night, Ah-ping brings home Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen), a comely girl who works the counter at the roller rink, and whose uniform is a blouse and the shortest skirt or pair of shorts she can find to wear. Ah-tse masturbates to the very loud noises of Ah-ping and Ah-kuei having sex, incidentally echoing a key scene in Tsai’s next feature, Vive L’Amour. Later in the film, Ah-ping proposes sharing Ah-kuei with his brother. The three of them eventually spend their nights getting drunk and riding their scooters. Besides the water, an important constant of Tsai’s films are motorbikes, usually driven by the male characters. This is an instantly iconic image, and one that many filmmakers have used to portray the free-spiritedness of youth. In Tsai’s hands, this image is complicated, and indeed subverted, and this vehicle becomes an illusion of freedom, a mode of travel that leads nowhere, only to never-ending circles of confinement, speeding furiously yet going nowhere. It’s not that big a leap to consider this to be Tsai’s metaphor for the larger Taiwanese society itself.
The film hinges on a thoughtless act by Ah-tse – smashing the rearview mirror of the cab Hsiao-kang’s father drives, with his son beside him – that turns out to have very severe consequences. Hsiao-kang inverts the dynamic of the god that is his forebear, exacting a disproportionate revenge on the harm done to his father by attacking Ah-tse’s beloved scooter, effectively emasculating him. This comes after Hsiao-kang, now out of school, spends days and nights stalking Ah-tse and his friends, for reasons that are not clearly defined – is it homosexual longing, a theme that will come to the fore in Tsai’s later features? Or is it jealousy of Ah-tse’s apparent freedom from the strictures of parents and school that imprison Hsiao-kang? Tsai doesn’t tell us, and certainly his characters won’t, even though there is much more dialogue in Rebels than his other films. As always, Tsai leaves it to the viewer to judge what it all means.
Tsai’s original script ended with the destruction of Ah-tse’s scooter. Tsai’s producer at the time, Hsu Li-kong, insisted that the film would be too short, and came up with the tacked-on, clichéd ending that, along with the film’s score, more than ever seems a travesty perpetrated on Tsai’s film. Thereafter, Tsai worked with foreign producers, mostly French, who provided him the freedom to pursue his creative visions unfettered (Tsai had, and continues to have, a very antagonistic relationship with the Taiwan film industry). His next film, Vive L’Amour, gave Tsai his first opportunity to present his inimitable style in its purest form, unencumbered by commercial constraints. And, over the course of nine films, he hasn’t looked back since.