Though released almost three decades ago in 1992, Tsai Ming-liang’s depiction of urban poverty and loneliness would have you think Rebels of the Neon God is contemporary. At the center of his film is Hsiao-kang (Kang-sheng Lee), a student who struggles to find anything of meaning in his life. He lives with his mother and father, the former of which believes him to be a reincarnation of the deity Nezha- the ‘Neon God’ of the title- and the latter of which is a taxi driver. Nezha is portrayed in Chinese culture as being youthful and rebellious, in particular towards his father who in Chinese mythology he sought to kill.
When Hsiao-kang’s father drives him to school, the mirror of the taxi cab is broken by the petty thief Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung). This event serves as a catalyst for the almost obsessive interest Hsiao-kang forms in Ah Tze as he determines how to best get revenge on behalf of his father. Ah Tze and his brother spend time eating, drinking, smoking, and biking with Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-wen). Hsiao-kang’s eavesdropping on Ah Tze can be seen as homoerotic, and this perspective is strengthened by a scene following Hsiao-kang’s revenge in which he leaves a phone dating service after not answering any calls.
In Taipei, Tsai depicts adolescence as a conflict between poverty, coolness, and alienation. Hsiao-kang is enrolled in school, but doesn’t see education as a means of improving his life. He quits school as a result, and the audience knows that nothing good will come from this decision or his heightened interest in Ah Tze.
Rebels of the Neon God might remind audiences of a number of films about aimless, outcast youth, and in Tsai’s film, poverty acts as a counter to coolness. Ah Tze enjoys a life of leisure riding his motorcycle and frequenting the arcade, but the apartment he comes home to is one that is flooded due to water that rises up from a drain. Hsiao-kang’s obsession with Ah Tze is one that isn’t complete idolization, but he does look up to the thief to some extent considering Hsiao-kang’s self-perceived ‘coolness’ when compared to Ah Tze. The subject of his focus along with Ah Ping spend the bulk of their screen time with Ah Kuei; however, Ah Kuei seems somewhat distant from the two. When Ah Ping is injured, he seeks the comfort of a woman and requests Ah Tze find a woman to hug him. Ah Kuei begrudgingly hugs him out of kindness. At times, Hsiao-kang seems jealous of Ah Kuei’s affection towards Ah Tze, and his experience at the phone dating service could be his feeble attempt to address his loneliness and un-coolness by finding a woman.
As part of his filmography, Rebels of the Neon God represents a strong debut effort from Tsai Ming-liang. By collaborating with cinematographer Liao Pen-jung and composer Huang Shu-jun, Tsai creates a powerful mise-en-scene capturing the lights, bustling traffic, crowds, small spaces, and unease in Taipei that the youth of his film experience. Tsai continued his collaboration with his cinematographer as well as lead actor Kang-sheng Lee throughout his career, the former acting as cinematographer for the majority of Tsai’s film and the latter appearing in all of Tsai’s films thus far. Like its presence within international cinema, Rebels of the Neon God is certain to make an impression on audiences as the sentiment of Tsai’s characters echoes the beating hearts of our youth today.