In addition to having one of the best titles ever, Rebels of the Neon God marks the start of one of modern cinema’s great careers. This film, which in spite of a worldwide cult following has never received a proper United States release, was the first feature directed by Tsai Ming-liang, whose subsequent work would establish him, alongside slightly older contemporaries like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, as a leading figure in the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1990s.
Made in 1992, Rebels feels anything but dated. Youthful disaffection never gets old, and the four alienated 20-ish Taipei residents who drift through Mr. Tsai’s artfully angled frames bear an evident kinship to the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and a hundred other movies produced since World War II. They ride around the city on motorbikes, stopping to smoke cigarettes and hang out in video arcades, all-night restaurants and love hotels. They are bored, restless, antisocial and vaguely in search of some kind of intensity.
In the films that immediately followed — Vive L’Amour, The River and The Hole — Mr. Tsai would enrich this stark, sad vision of life in Taipei and refine his melancholy, absurdist style. Although Rebels tells a slighter, somewhat more conventional story than those movies, it could hardly be mistaken for anyone else’s work. The camera movements are minimal and precise, turning what might seem like ordinary shots into sly jokes. There is water everywhere — torrential downpours sweeping the streets and a mysterious flood in a main character’s apartment.
Above all, there are performers who would become fixtures of this director’s imaginative universe. Chief among them is Lee Kang-sheng, a slender, nearly silent man with a Keatonesque deadpan who has appeared in all 10 of Mr. Tsai’s features so far. Here he plays Hsiao-kang, an unhappy student living with his parents (Lu Yi-ching and Miao Tien) and halfheartedly attending classes. Friendless and celibate, he develops an obsession with Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung, a petty criminal who specializes in robbing pay phones and vending machines).
Our attention swings between these two young men. Ah-tze periodically ditches his best friend and partner in crime (Jen Chang-bin) to pursue a desultory romance with Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen), a comparatively cheerful young woman who works in a roller disco and has trouble holding her liquor. The strands of the plot converge at the end in a flurry of sex, vandalism and violence.
Mr. Tsai typically uses narrative as a tool for exploring the moods and meanings that link his characters with one another and with the city that awakens, contains and frustrates their desires. They seem very much stuck in their world, but because that world is the creation of a wildly original artist coming into his own, it also feels alive with possibility.
Cast: Chen Chao-jung, Jen Chang-bin, Lee Kang-sheng, Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien.
Writer-director: Tsai Ming-liang.
A Big World Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.