Rebels of the Neon God is, in one sense, writer-director Tsai Ming-liang’s examination of several teenagers roaming the streets of Teipei, vacillating between their homes, an arcade, and a skating rink while displaying little capacity for introspection or outward explication of their plights. However, on another level, the entirety of Tsai’s debut feature unfolds like a rebuttal to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, seeking to interrogate questions of pop-cultural influence not as a matter of homage or allusion-based deconstruction, but as a damning treatise on the nature of product placement, globalization, and the often innocuous ends of cinematic play. Each of these potentially disparate lines of inquiry unfolds with a remarkable clarity with regard to precisely how, in practice, youthful proclivities are inextricable from exploitative forms of corporate capital.
Tsai’s characters are incapable of recognizing these structures because they’re so enmeshed within them. Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a quiet, almost silent student, enrolled in a local college course at the demand of his working-class parents, who are bothered by their son’s lack of initiative and seeming absence of social skills. Tsai reveals their concerns more through reaction shots and suggestion than dialogue; likewise, a couple of petty hoods named Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) ride motorbikes, hoping to be seen as emblems of cool, which the score by Huang Shu-Jun blankly supplements through its electronic, minimal intonations. If Tsai provides characters space to enunciate their thoughts, it’s often to divulge unusual sexual dynamics, like when Ah Bing requests that Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), Ah Tze’s would-be girlfriend, sit between them at the movies, so that he can “enjoy her smell as well.” Although Ah Tze is baffled by the request, he too has gleaned sexual pleasure, masturbating earlier in the film to the sounds of his older brother having sex with Ah Kuei. Narrative strands are tied and made significant through tangential, but overlapping desires, not least of which includes Hsiao-Kang’s eventual shadowing and infatuation with Ah Tze.
Tsai’s fairly broad characterizations provide him templates upon which to mobilize a stringent, if distanced, infiltration of urban places, particularly those which house the ends of youthful pursuits. In this way, Rebels of the Neon God pinpoints a video-game arcade as the locus classicus, the contemporary destination of neon godliness, even though the film’s title more explicitly refers to Hsiao-Kang’s mother’s belief that he’s the resurrected neon god Nezha. Yet her beliefs appear naïve, even doltish compared to the arcade’s glow and lure, which prominently positions a spin-off game from Terminator 2: Judgment Day in an early shot. The inclusion is telling, perhaps even directive, in understanding Tsai’s deviation from a cinema that uses public spaces for springboards into violent, fantasy-driven, special-effects extravaganzas. Moreover, the reference to Rebel Without a Cause is clear: Tsai’s rebels have no cause for a much different reason than the titular figure of the Nicholas Ray classic. Rather than caught amid the strife of generational uncertainty, they’re cast into a digitized milieu of Western cultural relics that posses merely a bastardized semblance of originary essence.
Tsai attaches these affirmations most evidently to Hsiao-Kang, who sits around his parents’ flat, pointing and toying with his newly acquired pellet gun in a manner that deliberately recalls Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. However, Tsai consistently frames Hsiao-Kang in long shots, preventing any identification whatsoever with his burgeoning taste for revenge. There’s nothing romantic here about violence, nor is there an affected visual style; to this end, Tsai takes instruction from a film like Touki Bouki for its engagement with dominant, fashionable film styles, but for the purpose of renouncing it. If Djibril Diop Mambéty’s film sought to castigate the French bourgeoisie for its insouciant demeanor in post-colonial relations with Senegal, Tsai’s film quite similarly integrates key French and American points of cinematic reference on violence and masculinity to subtly assail them.
The film makes no definitive statement on the relationship between media, art, and violence, but its repetition of spaces, much like the hollowed imitation of prior films, intimates Tsai’s declaration of his own work as adamantly anti-cool—that he’s not employing any sort of cinephilic knowledge for cultural capital. Although Rebels of the Neon God may in flashes seem prescient of such films as Chungking Express or Millennium Mambo, it rebukes a candy-colored, noirish veneer through an almost neorealist interest in human suffering, while attempting to enact an homage nullification, that recognizes the danger in reducing art to a what Fredric Jameson called “blank parody.” Rebels of the Neon God makes one yearn for an alternative reality where it, not Pulp Fiction, became the beacon of ’90s independent filmmaking.