From its very first shot – the interior of a phone booth amid a torrential downpour – it’s clear that Tsai Ming-Liang’s Qing shao nian nuo zha (Rebels of the Neon God, which opened at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 26) is going to be a damp affair. Produced in 1992, the film is only now getting a general release in the United States, serving as a prime (if extremely moist) example of Taiwanese New Wave Cinema.
Ah Ping (Chang-bin Jen) and Ah Tze (Chao-jung Chen) are a pair of early twenties ne’e’r do wells who make a living prying open cash boxes and stealing electronic equipment. When they’re not engaging in dirty deeds, the lads are either riding around on motorcycles or spending time in their dingy (and in Ah Tze’s case, frequently flooded) apartments.
Elsewhere in the capital city of Taipei, Hsiao Kang (Kang Sheng Lee) – also in his 20s – lives at home with mom and dad while attending a ‘cram school’, where he’s disinterestedly studying advanced mathematics in an overcrowded classroom. Bored beyond tears by it all, Hsiao-Kang finds his compass more useful for spearing giant cockroaches than for drawing circles and arcs.
Ah Tze’s next-door neighbor is Lin-meh Kuei (Yu-wen Wang), a pretty young woman who works at a nearby skating rink. Befriending the two rapscallions, she spends time with them dining, drinking, and going for joyrides.
Hsiao Kang, on the other hand, has no friends – and doesn’t exactly get along with his parents, either. Eager to shake things up, Kang drops out of school, stares longingly at a giant poster of James Dean, and uses his tuition refund to buy a pellet gun. Uh oh!
So what connects the film’s four main characters? Well, not much, but Hsiao Kang admires Kuei from afar and is deeply jealous of Tze, who seems to get everything he wants with minimal effort. Determined to make his mark on something, Kang decides nothing would be finer than to vandalize Tze’s motorbike – a task he pulls off with mathematical precision.
Hsiao Kang’s mother has been told that her son is the reincarnation of Nezha, the Neon God, and indeed his presence throughout the film borders on the supernatural. Unseen, unheard, and all but invisible, he stalks the other three characters, announcing his presence only when it suits him.
Rebels of the Neon God plays a bit like a Taiwanese variation of Nagisa Oshima’s groundbreaking Cruel Story of Youth (1960). Oshima’s film told a story most Japanese would have preferred not to hear – of troubled young adults getting up to no good, sexually and otherwise, in the post-war years.
Tsai’s film, of course, came thirty years later, but treads similar ground. Unlike Cruel Story of Youth, however, it’s not turned into a period piece yet: other than some scenes in a video arcade and some rather unfortunate stonewashed jeans, Rebels of the Neon God looks thoroughly contemporary.
Footnote: Shu-Jun Huang’s score provides a master class in electronic minimalism: it’s basically four notes repeated ad infinitum. John Carpenter would be impressed.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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