The spare background music sprinkled throughout Ming-liang Tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God, a dour bass line, sets the tone of the movie. If it’s not the sound of doom itself, it emphasizes the dark, brooding atmosphere that prevails throughout the film.
The story opens in film noir fashion with crimes committed during a driving rain. In fact, it never seems to stop raining in Taipei, where four disaffected 20-somethings slog through life, more or less adapted to their drab urban environment.
“It has the feel of French New Wave films of a generation earlier with its bored, disenchanted youths who cruise through the city on motor scooters and have a vague disdain for society.”
Rebels of the Neon God, the director’s first feature, gets the tone and feeling of these characters’ disjointed lives exactly right. It’s the kind of character-driven story that we don’t get enough of nowadays. Made 25 years ago, the movie does not feel at all dated. The director’s observations are still perceptive, and the film’s blend of humor and pathos is fresh and unaffected. It has the feel of French New Wave films of a generation earlier with its bored, disenchanted youths who cruise through the city on motor scooters and have a general disdain for society. Their lives are at a dead end — they hang around in video arcades and cheap hotels, smoke cigarettes and generally shirk responsibilities.
The film takes place in drab rooms and crumbling urban exteriors, but the camera work is a delight to the eye. Ming-liang Tsai keeps his camera moving and has a knack for choosing unexpected angles that not only help tell the story but also emphasize humorous turns now and then.
The story focuses on Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee), who lives at home with his parents and attends classes but couldn’t care less about excelling in them. He becomes obsessed with petty criminal Ah Tze (Chao-jung Chen) and begins stalking the delinquent after Ah Tze smashes the side-view mirror of Hsiao-Kang’s dad’s taxi.
Ah Tze and his buddy Ah Bing (Chang-Bin Jen) earn their keep by breaking into payphones and candy machines. From time to time Ah Tze hooks up with Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), an attendant at a roller disco. She hopes for something more lasting, but Ah Tze won’t be pinned down.
“Water is everywhere in this rain-soaked view of Taipei.”
Water is everywhere in this rain-soaked view of Taipei. Even the apartment Ah Tze shares with his car salesman brother becomes one large puddle as the drain in the kitchen floor backs up — a development that he shrugs off.
As the story progresses, the two petty criminals try to up their game. But they land in deeper trouble than they bargained for when they step on the wrong set of toes. And each of the four slackers finds themselves in a tight corner.
Although the characters speak sparingly, especially the taciturn Hsiao-Kang, we come away understanding their world a little better. The conflicts that they encounter along the way are by no means resolved, but the ending is satisfying just the same. The filmmaker avoids easy, formulaic solutions and as the film concludes, we can’t help but wish there was more.
Rebels of the Neon God (1992) Directed by Ming-liang Tsai, written by Ming-liang Tsai, starring Chao-jung Chen, Chang-Bin Jen, Kang-sheng Lee, Yi-Ching Lu, Tien Miao and Yu-Wen Wang
9 out of 10