Rebels of the Neon God

If you’re a cinephile with an interest in Southeast Asia, chances are you’ll think twice before ever hiring a Taiwanese plumber. Blame director Tsai Ming-liang, in whose films it never rains but it pours—usually indoors, to a degree that would have made even Tarkovsky feel the damp. In Tsai’s films, water seeps through walls, pours through ceilings, gushes up through drains in the floor—a problem that the director claims to have suffered from in every apartment he ever rented, the curse even following him when he moved to Paris.

Water is the first thing you become aware of right at the start of Tsai’s first theatrical feature, Rebels of the Neon God, now at last getting its first U.S. release. As young hoods go to work robbing a telephone box, rain pelts down outside—and soon enough, we see that this surfeit of water has worked its way into the apartment of one of these minor toughs, Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung). He comes home to find himself ankle-deep in water, in which various objects (a sandal, a cigarette butt, a dead cockroach) float with poetic languor.

Already a fully formed Tsai Ming-liang film in many ways, this early feature from 1992 contains many of what would become his trademarks: the water, the fraught family dynamics, the slow pacing, the strange mixture of moodiness and slow-burn comedy sometimes verging on farce, and of course, the presence of Tsai’s regular lead, the airily melancholic Lee Kang-sheng. But Rebels is also very different from what would follow: it’s punchier and grittier, with roots in the realist TV dramas that Tsai had made after moving to Taipei from his native Malaysia. In Rebels, he has said, he wanted to be “even more documentary, even more real about everyday life in Taipei,” and what he achieves here is to inject rough-edged realism with a dash of punkish glamour. In its somewhat Melvillean views of Taipei after dark, neon-lit as the title suggests, and its story of outsider youth zipping around on motorbikes between crime sprees and bursts of sex, Rebels offers a funky nightscape of a film that, very roughly speaking, is to early Nineties Taipei what Jean-Jacques Beineix’s more comic-strip-styled Diva was to Paris a decade earlier. It also makes Taipei, for all the alienation depicted, look like fun, much more of a playground than the paranoid space of Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers, made six years earlier.

Rebels of the Neon God

Rebels sets the pattern for later Tsai films in which characters inhabiting different worlds move in parallel, but observe each other at a distance (the most active observer usually being the Lee Kang-sheng character) before coming together in often dreamlike circumstances. Here Lee Kang-sheng (his character is referred to both by that name and, as in the later films, as Hsiao-Kang) is a failing math student in a cram school, to the despair of his mother and father—played respectively by Lu Yi-chiing and Miao Tien, who would also become Tsai regulars.

One day Hsiao-Kang is out with his taxi-driver dad in thick traffic when they get into an altercation with Ah-tze, who’s on his bike, and who smashes Dad’s wing mirror. Hsiao-Kang then starts following Ah-tze, his new girlfriend Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen) and his sidekick Ah-Bing (Jen Chang-bin) around town. Given the film’s economy with dialogue and discretion about revealing motivation, especially Hsiao-Kang’s, it’s hard to say exactly what motivates his pursuit. Jealousy triggered by the sight of Ah-kuei’s hot-panted butt on Ah-tze’s bike? Revenge for Dad’s taxi? Or erotic attraction to Ah-tze himself, to whom Hsiao-Kang plays a sort of sad-sack mirror image? After all, they both ride bikes, favor denim, have clean-cut hairstyles, and at one point find themselves occupying adjacent hotel rooms.

Whatever the case, there’s a striking melancholy (it’s too low-key to call pathos) in the way that Hsiao-Kang hovers on the other trio’s tail, at one point sitting across a mall corridor as they eat, himself in plain view but unseen by them; in Tsai’s films, Hsiao-Kang is the city’s perennial Invisible Man. There’s something intensely creepy about his mission, as if we were watching an outsider stalking the threesome in Jules et Jim (not a random comparison, given Tsai’s love of Truffaut). But the shadowing is also comic in a deadpan way: Hsiao-Kang creeps into a games arcade to watch Ah-tze case the joint (arcades, phone boxes—we’re truly watching the lost world of the early Nineties here), only to end up locked in overnight and sleeping on the floor.

Rebels of the Neon God

Hsiao-Kang’s bad night out is one of the things that marks Rebels as a Tsai Ming-liang film. There’s never any real, safe home in his films; if Tsai’s dwellings aren’t totally porous, water seeping in at every crack, they have windows that are too fragile, and Rebels starts with Hsiao-Kang accidentally smashing one when he tries to swat a cockroach. In Tsai’s cities, you sleep where you can—a theme that found its most heightened expression in the cavernous provisional squats of his most recent city features I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (06) and Stray Dogs (13). In Rebels, people camp out in video arcades, or wake up in other people’s apartments and cramped hotel rooms, as Ah-kuei does when she graduates from sleeping with Ah-tze’s brother to Ah-tze himself.

Rebels of the Neon God is a city film in the fullest sense, in that it doesn’t just explore Taipei’s surface (although it’s very evocative of its busy streets by day and night) but delves deep into its hidden zones. Tsai gives us malls, diners, arcades, but also staircases, corridors, back rooms, toilets. Similarly, he doesn’t only show people’s public behavior, but catches them in their most intimate, even abject moments: Tsai is a genuine realist director in that his characters jerk off, throw up, are driven to the toilet by gut-ache.

In places, Rebels is as muted and slow-burning as you expect a Tsai film to be, but just as often, it’s vibrant, nervy, altogether rock ’n’ roll; one shot shows Hsiao-Kang contemplating a James Dean poster, and a terse John Carpenter-ish electronic bass line throbs throughout. The color is as vivid as the title promises: there’s a striking cut from the red lights of Ah-tze’s bike at night to the deep blue of a roller disco. And there’s a ferocious handheld sequence at the end when the young hoods are pursued by the arcade gangsters they’ve tried to rip off. But the visual pièce de resistance of the cinematography by Liao Pen-jung—Tsai’s collaborator ever since—is an amazing deep-focus night shot, panning up from Ah-ping puking on the ground to Ah-kuei standing some way off on a sort of industrial platform, seen through a wire mesh lit in deep red.

Rebels of the Neon God

I’m not entirely sure what the English title means: that is, are its characters rebels against the neon god, or in his/its service? In one sense, the god is Taipei itself; in another, it’s the arcade games that exert such a thrall on these characters. But the reference is also to the deity Nezha, whom Hsiao-Kang’s mother calls the Neon God: she returns from a Buddhist temple convinced that her son is a reincarnation of the deity. So possibly it’s in the role of a vengeful god that Hsiao-Kang sets out to bring Ah-tze to justice; when he takes advantage of his quarry’s tryst with Ah-kuei to sabotage his bike, Hsiao-Kang scrawls a message on the pavement that isn’t translated in the subtitles but that apparently translates as, “Nezha was here.”

The film is wonderfully cast. As the parents, Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao-ling have furrowed, characterful faces that Tsai would go on to make the most of; Chen Chao-jung makes a cool, Delon-esque tough; Wang Yu-wen has an intensely sexy but forlorn presence as Ah-kuei. But at the center—which is where he’d continue to be—is Lee Kang-sheng, one of the most singular acteurs fétiches a director ever adopted. Such is the actor’s fragile opacity that it’s hard to know here, just as in the later films, how to read Hsiao-Kang: deranged, tragic, a comic Everyman, a fool, or a mixture of them all? Sometimes his face seems intensely melancholy, at others simply blank. At moments, he seems not to register whatever his character is going through, at others he goes off the rails; there’s a bizarre moment when, spying on Ah-tze’s distress over his wrecked bike, Hsiao-Kang gambols in jubilation on his bed, cackling like a goblin, only to bash his head painfully on the ceiling, which appears actually to be happening accidentally to the actor.

Tsai first spotted Lee as a young non-actor and drafted him into his 1989 TV film All the Corners of the World, promoting him to lead role in his follow-up Boys (91). What struck the director, he has said in an interview, was Lee’s odd pace: “I realized that his rhythm was a little strange, just a bit slower than everyone’s.” But Lee refused outright to speed up at Tsai’s behest, and this resistance became something that Tsai went on to incorporate into his direction. You might say it became the founding principle of Tsai’s work, all of it attuned one way or another to Lee’s resistance and slowness. His films became portraits of a man moving out of synch with the external world—something taken to the limit in the recent Walker shorts, performance pieces in which Lee Kang-sheng simply walks slowly. Very, very slowly.

Rebels of the Neon God

In fact, for any study of film actors and their relation to time and change, Lee Kang-sheng is a quintessential screen embodiment of time—a man whose inner slowness has been outflanked by the speed of mortality. Like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel—a model Tsai saluted by casting Jean-Pierre Léaud in his What Time Is It There? (01)—Lee has aged rather alarmingly in front of the camera. It’s hard to reconcile the almost childlike, sleek-coiffed waif in Rebels—made when he was 24—with the haggard, puffy-cheeked paterfamilias of Stray Dogs, whose features seem to have absorbed much of the moisture to which they’ve been exposed over years of Tsai films. Yet even the svelte anti-hero of Rebels has a weariness about his eyes, as though he’s already spent a few too many sleepless nights. It puts the finishing touch to this first, wonderfully perplexing incarnation of Lee Kang-sheng as outsider and ingénu—at once Dean-like loner and nebbish, vengeful deity and Imp of the Perverse.

Read our interview with Tsai Ming-liang here.