Home Video Hovel: Rebels of the Neon God, by Alexander Miller
It seems like every generation has their concerned-parent-of-the-year film that all too frequently repeats our cinematic vernacular, whether it’s doing drugs, getting a nose ring, falling in the wrong crowd, going to the rumble, “smokin’ with cigarettes” or stealing cars. Regardless, these tropes are “tearing me apart.”
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has been on the receiving end of international acclaim for years, thanks to his exploration of psychological and societal alienation through his meditative revision of what we know (or refer to) as neo-realism. An endeared director of Taiwanese cinema’s second wave movement, Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation for capturing psychological and societal alienation weren’t a burgeoning style over the course of his career, but are immediately identifiable in his debut feature Rebels of the Neon God. A sodden, street-level look at the disaffected youths whose lives on the streets of Taipei consist of petty crime, scooters and video arcades, Rebels of the Neon God can be considered patient zero to an outbreak of adjectives and analogies to Italian neorealism, French New Wave, even New German Cinema, but his symmetrical aesthetic comprised of long takes, atmospheric use of location, and muted performances flow into a stream of hushed originality.
Centering on the slightly unhinged Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng, who would play in all of the director’s coming films), an aimless student of the competitive cram schools (known as Buxiban) who drifts into the orbit of two petty delinquents Ah-ping and Ah-tze (and their vapid love interest Ah-kuei) when they vandalize his father’s taxi cab. Hsiao Kang’s fascination with the low-rent hoods overflows from an obsession to a ruling consumption. Kang’s relationship with his parents grows from unstable to calamitous once he withdraws from cram school to stalk his prey. Khang’s mother believes that her son is incarnate of Nehza, the neon god who’s born into a family as a child who tries to murder his father, only quelled when the father receives a miniature pagoda from a Taoist mentor that he can control his son.
Committed to this belief, Kang’s mother relies on rituals and charms in order to control or understand her son’s behavior. Her ineptitude in seeking spiritual edification to comprehend her wayward son is a new level or “parents just don’t understand” in this breakdown of communication. Don’t talk to your son, or involve yourself in his life, just surrender his fate to the gods. Ironically, Khang was motivated to follow the delinquents in part to avenge the desecration of his fathers car. One could argue that his heart is in the right place, but it also shows us that misguided intentions come from both parties.
Though the proceedings come in a steadily-flowing narrative, the story has a diverging point, and the exploits of Ah-Ping, Ah-tze, and Ah-kuei become a separate story. While this may sound like unfocused storytelling, it is in fact decisively placed as if we were pursuing this Jules and Jim like trio by putting us in Khang Hsiao’s role as the predator of these idle scofflaws. Due to the moral midgetry that’s limiting these people, Khang studiously vandalizes Ah-tze’s scooter with tact and precision; if he can dismantle something so proficiently, what could he accomplish with reversed motivations?
The omnipresent theme of urban alienation is the headliner in Rebels of the Neon God. If it seems obvious, which at times it can be, Tsai Ming-liang tip-toes through the narrative with the delicate precision that makes this slow burning flame impossible to turn away from. Khang, our listless teenager, finds himself positioned next to a picture of James Dean. While the two couldn’t be more different, Khang is indeed an outsider whose remove from his parents and classmates seems partially self-imposed and the product of an overabundant habitat that produces socially overwhelmed loners.
Tsai Ming-liang has many strengths as a filmmaker, and the most constructively utilized facet of his talent is his weightless camera that turns the viewer into the proverbial fly on the wall. Taipei is presented in an uninsistent manner; Tsai Ming-liang long takes of Taipei records a series of juxtapositions, both aesthetic and symbolic. The title refers to the neon god story, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume there’s two gods present in the film, the later being the ever present flashing screens of televisions and arcade game screens. The video arcades seem to be a place of worship, and the only place where the fervent youths seem to coexist peacefully while expressing their cathartic rebellion through Street Fighter, Terminator 2, and your average overhead bomber game. The arrested youths are incapable of articulation (Hsiao Kang hardly utters a word). Their solace is self-imposed social exile to glowing screens. While Taipei may seem stifling, it’s also augmented with scenes of liberating beauty, including long takes of Ah-Tze, and Ah-ping riding their scooters, flashing lights reflecting off of construction sites, and (consistent in the directors work) flowing water if it’s coming from the sky or the floor of flooding apartment.
The finale recalls Truffaut’s The 400 Blows with our lead whose future is in question, with the apathetic look that proves resolution is out of reach. Rebels of the Neon God is obviously a pensive study of youthful alienation against an overcrowded urban setting. But it sidesteps cliches, and is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. The aesthetic structure juxtaposes the loneliness of adolescence in a digital milieu next to dated religious customs and rigid mores.
Whether it’s the result of his 2013 film Stray Dogs garnering such worldwide acclaim, or that it was long overdue for an official release, Tsai Ming-liang’s sought after film is now available thanks to Big World Pictures on DVD. The overall product looks great; the picture is crisp, and the HD restoration looks clean, the color correction is on point, the sound editing is fine (the atonal bass/synth score intact), but most importantly the grain of the original film stock is still visible, and without it the film just wouldn’t look right. And as many people know restorations can turn into reconstructions, thus altering the film. A grainy dissolve after the opening titles (which is so subtle it’s easy to miss) seems to be the only alteration to the film. Complaints are few, though the English subtitles are embedded; while North American audiences likely won’t mind, I’m sure some people won’t be happy about it. Special features are limited to a few trailers, but the most important thing is that Rebels of the Neon God got an official restoration and DVD release.
If you are a newcomer to the work of Tsai Ming-liang, this is a great starting point.