By Daniel Barnes
Festival circuit cinephiles revere Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang for films like Goodbye Dragon Inn, What Time is It There?, last year’s Stray Dogs, and Journey to the West (the slow-walking monk one, not the kung fu demon hunter one). The moody vérité noir Rebels of the Neon God is his 1992 debut feature, a movie largely unseen stateside, but now arriving in an HD restoration for a brief theatrical run.
Appropriately enough, this was also my first Tsai Ming-liang experience, and the film’s hypnotic mix of pungent atmosphere and anti-narrative attitude left me excited to explore more of his work. Initially, Rebels of the Neon God seems to have little in the way of narrative shape. It follows two disparate but equally disaffected Taipei youths – withdrawn but seething dropout Hsiao Kang, and a handsome change thief named Ah Tze – as they struggle to fit into their separate worlds.
A chance road rage encounter eventually forces their paths to cross, and Hsiao becomes obsessed with the pretty motorcycle boy. Hsiao forms an unspoken rivalry with Ah Tze as he stalks him through strobe-lit roller rinks and neon-soaked video arcades. With its handheld camerawork, restrained electronic score, vivid colors, persistent rainstorms and vibrant street scenes, Rebels of the Neon God creates a tangible sense of time and place, even as it delves deeper into incoherence and dissolution.
It’s a Godard-ian hangout movie larded with James Dean references and dripping with a teeming urban atmosphere, from Ah Tze’s perpetually flooded apartment to Hsiao Kang’s ridiculously overcrowded classroom to the Dial-a-Date phone bank where Hsiao finally winds up, unable to even answer the phone. When you worship the Neon God, you worship alone.