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Rebels of the Neon God

Original title: Qing shao nian nuo zha 

D: Tsai Ming-liang / 106m

Cast: Chen Chao-jung, Lee Kang-sheng, Wang Yu-Wen, Lu Yi-Ching, Tien Miao, Jen Chang-bin

Ah-tse (Chen) lives in a flat where the drain in the kitchen has backed up and water covers the floor. He’s not too concerned about it; instead he’s more interested in stealing money from telephone booths with his friend Ah-ping (Jen). He has a relationship with Ah-kuei (Wang) that he’s not fully committed to, and no sense of purpose. Elsewhere, student Hsiao-kang (Lee) is bored with his studies and with his life in general. His relationship with his mother (Lu) and father (Tien) is strained and he spends most of his time in his room.

Hsiao-kang’s father is a taxi driver. When he sees his son out of school one morning he elects to take him there. At a junction, his father is held up by Ah-tse, who is on his motor bike (with Ah-kuei on the back). Ah-tse’s anger at being scolded by a taxi driver prompts him to smash the taxi’s side mirror. Later that night, Ah-tse and Ah-ping meet up with Ah-kuei and they go out. Ah-kuei gets drunk and the two friends take her to a hotel where they leave her to sleep it off. The next day, Hsiao-kang drops out of the tutorial school he’s attending and collects the refund that’s due. He buys a cap gun and heads to a nearby arcade, which is where he sees Ah-tse and Ah-kuei. Recognising them, he decides to watch them. They meet up with Ah-ping at a restaurant then they head back to the arcade; at closing time they hide in the toilets until it’s locked up. Hsiao-kang hides too and sees them pry open several of the arcade machines and remove the motherboards.

The next day, Hsiao-kang’s father discovers he’s no longer enrolled at the tutorial school. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang has found out that Ah-kuei works at a skating rink. When she meets Ah-tse after her shift is over, they end up at a hotel where they spend the night. While they’re there, Hsiao-kang takes the opportunity to vandalise Ah-tse’s motorbike, rendering it unrideable. He goes home but is refused entry by his father. The next morning, when Ah-tse finds his motor bike, the cost of its repair is more than he can afford, unless he sells the motherboards. But when he and Ah-ping take them to the owner of another arcade, his hopes for a quick sale don’t go as planned…

Rebels of the Neon God - scene

There’s a moment towards the end of Rebels of the Neon God when Ah-kuei suggests that she and Ah-tse “leave this place”. Ah-tse responds by asking where she wants to go, but Ah-kuei is unable to answer him. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the message behind writer/director Tsai’s foray into the lives of Taiwanese youth: that disaffection and ennui are powerful motivators toward isolation. None of the three main characters has a place in the world that gives them purpose. Ah-tse appears to be the more focused of the three, his petty larcenies and casual insolence informing his personality and making him seem as if he knows what he’s doing. Ah-kuei has little identity beyond that given to her by being with Ah-tse and Ah-ping; otherwise she’s alone and struggling to connect with others. Hsiao-kang is the most alienated, his intolerance and disdain for others a reaction to his parents’ expectations of him.

As the lives of all three intersect and criss-cross, Tsai focuses on the ways in which they fail to connect emotionally with themselves, each other, and the world around them. Ah-tse uses the people around him, Ah-ping as his willing accomplice in crime, and Ah-kuei as an accessory he’s barely concerned about. When the three of them are together he acts as an unelected leader, deciding what they’ll do and where they’ll go. He looks for power in whichever way he can find it, all to make him feel superior. But it’s a hollow superiority, as shown when his plan to sell the motherboards backfires, and his sense of place in the world is rudely undermined. With his bravado severely compromised and his self-belief in tatters, Ah-kuei’s increasing need to understand the parameters of their relationship forces him to consider someone else for the first time. It’s a transitive moment and allows their relationship a moment of hope.

Hsiao-kang though is completely lost, unable to connect to anyone except in the most basic way and even when it would be of benefit to him; at one point he visits a phone dating service but can’t pick up the phone when someone is calling. His feelings are compromised so badly he can’t even react when he’s thrown out of his own home. His attack on Ah-tse’s motor bike is less of a chance at payback for his father and more of an expression of self-loathing.

Tsai positions his characters against a neon-lit, brightly dramatic background, as Taipei’s nightlife throbs and pivots and vibrates around them. It helps highlight the level of dissociation the characters exhibit, and serves as a dispassionate character all its own. It’s an added layer in a movie that examines the connections and disparities our emotions can lead us into, and which leaves it all open-ended as to where its characters will end up and how withdrawn they’ll continue to be. The cast handle their roles well, though Wang’s character is given little development beyond her need for physical approbation. Lee is moody and recalcitrant as Hsiao-kang, capturing the character’s deep-rooted antagonism with quiet skill. And Chen displays the cocksure bluster that Ah-tse uses to make himself feel important.

With it’s attempts at lyricism amidst the garish neon wasteland of Taipei’s arcade district, offset with the colder austerity of its daytime appearance, and the poorly maintained rooms that Ah-tse uses, the movie paints a vivid portrait of a society and a generation unable to come to terms with its lack of direction.

Rating: 8/10 – with a poster of James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as its guide, Rebels of the Neon God is an effective, thought-provoking look at teenage alienation; with a script that provides no easy solutions for its characters, it’s a sombre piece and with an unexpectedly emotional core.