Rebels of the Neon God

Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang acknowledges that this film, his first, is part of a long tradition: focusing on four alienated youths, he has one of them confront a large James Dean poster. Two characters, brothers, steal phone coin boxes and video-game innards for a living; the third is one brother’s flirtatious girlfriend, lusted after by the other brother and by the fourth character, Hsiao Kang, who’s dropped out of a grueling preparatory program to wander about Taipei. There are homoerotic elements both in Hsiao Kang’s relentless pursuit of one of the brothers–is he really interested in the girl, or in the boy?–as well as in the camera’s frequent lingering on the men’s bodies. Hsiao Kang never really connects with the trio, and the film’s misconnections reinforce a sense of parallel lives being lived out in an alienating jungle of skating rinks, video- game parlors, a continually flooding apartment, and ultimately a strip joint-cum-whorehouse. Most effective is the way the film’s cinematic understatement–the observational camera, avoidance of narrative suspense, and restrained use of violence common in recent Taiwanese films–heightens the dead-end emptiness of the characters’ lives. Neither we nor they seem to know why they’re here, where they’re going, or any of the reasons for their plight. Where an American film might offer causes, the 1992 Rebels of the Neon God tries to raise their plight to a gentle, unanalyzable poetry. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, August 4, 2:00, 443-3737.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from Rebels of the Neon God.