This week Guest Star Michelle Kisner writes about Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God (1992). Keep up with her and all her film writing via Instagram at @robotcookie!
Tsai Ming-liang’s debut film Rebels of the Neon God (1992) is an exploration of isolation and longing–on the surface parallel tales of the very different lives of two young men growing up in the urban sprawl of Taipei. Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a quiet and introverted teen going through cram school and living an insular and boring life with his parents. On the flip side, the narrative also follows Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) a cool and collected streetwise punk who zooms around the city on his motorbike committing petty theft and flirting with girls.
Hsiao has a chance encounter with Tze while getting a ride in his father’s taxi, an encounter that ends with Tze smashing the taxi’s side window and driving off leaving both Hsiao and his father feeling humiliated. Instead of becoming angry, this becomes the catalyst for Hsiao to start obsessing over Tze and following him around the city, trying to subtly get him to notice him. There is some unspoken sexual attraction simmering underneath Hsiao’s focus, perhaps even unknown to him but more obvious to the viewers.
The so-called Neon God in the title of the film refers to Nezha, a god in Chinese mythology who was considered rebellious but was eventually able to be controlled by his human family. He is the patron god of children and filial piety, the willfulness of the young, but also the idea that eventually when they grow up they become more responsible. Hsiao’s mother believes he is the human incarnation of Nezha and is frightened of the implication. He does seem to harbor a streak of destruction deep inside him, symbolized in the beginning of the film when he kills a cockroach with the sharp tip of a compass, watching it struggle helplessly as it’s impaled. Perhaps he takes small pleasure in torture and mayhem, but likely he is just bored and has no outlet for all of his feelings. This penchant for destruction comes into play later in the film when Hsiao vandalizes Tze’s beloved motorbike and then dances giddily in his underwear at his bedroom window as he watches Tze despair over his bike from afar. A god of rebellion indeed.
Taipei itself is a character in this film, constantly under the deluge of rain showers, with water pooling everywhere. Much of the film takes place indoors under harsh fluorescent lights as the characters take refuge from the downpour, imparting a feeling of nostalgia. Late night liminal spaces are the main aesthetic, often lit by flashing arcade monitors and swirling smoke from cigarettes. Tze and a young woman make love in front of the light from a CRT television, the artificial light washing over them ironically making it more realistic and relatable. The early ‘90s were when we truly began to integrate technology into our daily lives, when we started letting the neon inside our houses instead of only seeing it on the city streets.
Tsai Ming-liang understands how to convey all of this with minimal dialog, instead utilizing space and time to tell his stories. Tze’s apartment cyclically floods, like the tide coming in and out, the water representing the stress of life encroaching and eventually receding. When the water rises up he is cornered in his bedroom, the only place on higher ground, trapped by forces outside of his control. This lack of control is present in both Tze and Hsiao’s lives. They are both lonely in different ways, unable to fully connect with the bustling urban life, falling down into the cracks with nobody to help them. The film ends on an ambiguous note with both characters seemingly accepting their situations and not changing their life trajectory. The camera pans up to an overcast grey sky, the implication being that life goes on, the monotony never ending.
Michelle Kisner writes about film. Keep up with her on Instagram at @robotcookie
Categories: Guest Star
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