All in this Together, by Dayne Linford
Opening with two young teenage boys finding shelter in a phone booth from a torrential downpour, Rebels of the Neon God gives us an immediate sense of its moral and social landscape. They light their cigarettes, collect themselves, then immediately set to breaking open the phone box, working past its defense with mechanical efficiency and dumping the change into a sack. Their movements to other booths and various petty larcenies are then juxtaposed against another boy, solitary in his room at home, ostensibly studying but actually staring out the window. A cockroach scurries nearby and suddenly he leaps from his chair, snatching up his drafting compass and impaling the bug with it. He lifts it from the floor, writhing around the needle and then sticks the compass upright in his desk, allowing the cockroach to slowly die around it. His act, so devoid of meaning in our human-centric worldview, takes on far greater overtones of cruelty and callousness juxtaposed against their petty crimes. Here, director Tsai Ming-Liang seems to subvert the typical moral paradigm, making the law-abiding citizen the more dangerous. Tsai really drives this home as he cuts back to the cockroach, limp and motionless on the desk. The student stands, opens his window and throws the bug out. Later, glancing upward, he sees the same bug on his windowpane outside. Perturbed, he begins to pound on the window to disturb the bug, hitting harder until he puts his open palm through it. His blood dripping down on this homework is the only time he’s touched it all night. Here, Tsai completes the subversion, turning the student’s cruelty back on himself into a self-destructive pitch. This is the opening to Tsai’s extremely promising 1992 debut.
Juxtaposition is the main thematic technique here, centering on the student, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), juxtaposed against the ostensible leader of the two thieves, Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung). They never share a scene together, but nonetheless the film forces them into a dialogue of action, against themselves, their friends and family, and each other, their moral landscape subverting constantly in questions of degree. Especially in the latter half of the film, Tsai rarely lets a scene play out before cutting to the other character, the two circling each other unawares or in ways that can’t be understood.
Their collision occurs early, as Hsiao-kang’s father, a cab driver, decides to take his son to a movie, a rare chance at companionship for the both of them, while Ah-tze takes his brother’s girlfriend, Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen), home. Ah-tze, on a motorcycle, passes Hsiao-kang’s father, then occupies the turning lane in front of him. Hsiao-kang’s father honks to get him to scoot over and allow them to turn, which, Ah-kuei alerting him to the cab driver, he does. As Hsiao-kang’s father passes, Ah-tze and Hsiao-kang share the barest of glances before Ah-tze unhooks a bike lock and, in an upward swing, takes out the cab’s side view mirror before blowing through the intersection. Hsiao-kang’s father attempts to follow, but, being in the turning lane, accidentally runs into another car going straight. Obviously, the movie is out, and Hsiao-kang begins to develop an obsession in his return to isolation, setting out to find Ah-tze and enact some kind of vengeance.
Tsai constructs this scene very cleverly, isolating, though on a crowded street, the characters and playing out, as before, their journey in miniature. Each boy spends the scene with the main object of their affection and emotional trial throughout the film, which relationship is largely determined by what happens here. Hsiao-kang and his father lose their chance at connection, beginning here to split as they do later in the film. And Ah-tze spends the rest of the film in a strange dance with Ah-kuei, flirting and pushing at sexual boundaries, having impressed her with his bravado and childish vandalism. Similarly, the boys also turn the tables on each other. Driven to depression in his isolation, Hsiao-kang will no longer passively accept this victimization, taking an active role in asserting his will throughout the rest of the film. And Ah-tze, rendered callous by deprivation, will begin to consider the moral ramifications of his actions and lifestyle, particularly when it comes to Ah-kuei.
This expert construction is largely responsible for the success of the film, each character circling notions of morality, power and powerlessness. In particular, as Hsiao-kang takes on a more active role, his moral outlook, already twisted, begins to warp further, culminating in an act of vandalism that mirrors the initial act, but far exceeds it in degree, especially through the stigma of the word “AIDS”. And as Ah-tze begins to be more moral, he similarly begins to be more victimized, losing power in his reticence before moral violations, culminating in a moment of shock and recognition in painful victimization that ironically delivers in a single stroke the remorse Hsiao-kang has been trying to force upon Ah-tze the entire film.
Though largely expertly and subtly rendered, it’s not a perfect film. Being Tsai’s first film, it does carry the hallmarks of what can almost be thought of as a genre – a preoccupation with youth, a certain self-conscious artiness. With the former, that’s just the nature of the beast, but the latter fuddles the momentum of the film, dragging some scenes out when they don’t need to be. On the other hand, Tsai has a very strong sense of color, lighting and costuming in a very effective palette of blue, grey, and red. Most problematic, however, is Ah-kuei. She largely expresses herself sexually, which, given the tone of isolation throughout the film, it makes sense that she would be similarly lonely. But sex being her only tool in the film for assuaging that loneliness feels one note and privileges the masculine viewpoints of the leads. It’s especially problematic in one scene where she gets falling down drunk and clumsily flaunts herself on anyone within reaching distance, to the point where date rape is a topic seriously discussed between Ah-tze and his friend. This is important for his moral transformation, the assumption being that such an action would have been taken previously, but it objectifies Ah-kuei and smacks way too much of the “she asked for it” line of justification, in some ways artificially enlarging the importance of a decision that only makes Ah-tze basically decent.
All in all, though, Rebels of the Neon God is a very strong, textured, multilayered debut from a gifted filmmaker. Its moral landscape is fascinating and its social critique damning even as Tsai retains his compassion for his characters, their desperate but pointless realizations, and their powerlessness in the face of heaven’s torrential downpour. Damned in their isolation and rendered hopeless by psychological impulses far beyond them, Tsai gifts them with a powerful and sympathetic portrait even as they atrophy into inconsequential mediocrity.