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Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rebels of the Neon God

Tsai Ming-liang has recently written that he is “tired of cinema”—specifically, of making “the kinds of films that expect the patronage of cinema audiences.”1 Whether he will retire from filmmaking altogether is still unclear (he was going to, apparently, but then made another film), but on the evidence of his first feature Rebels of the Neon God, he has been tired of cinema from the get-go, or at least the kind of cinema that attempts to excite us with strenuously subjective “storytelling.” As rigorous an image-maker as he is, Tsai’s has always been a distant and tired cinema; he is, in fact, one of our preeminent movie-poets of the weariness engendered by late capitalism. Though Rebels is superficially more energetic than subsequent films, it is still an expression of—and reflection on—existence as exhaustion. Even in his youth, Tsai was seeing the world with the eyes of a jaded elder, albeit one with a capacity for a kind of nervy bemusement—a quality that has all but disappeared from his later work.

Rebels of the Neon God.

The film opens with white credits on black, over a sound that viewers of Tsai’s later movies will already be well acquainted with: the white noise of a drenching downpour.2 Fade up on an empty phone booth. Two men enter, seemingly to get out of the rain—then they smash the phone box open and pocket fistfuls of change. Cut to a palpably bored youth (played by Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s perpetual leading man) as he sits at his desk and stares out the window. He espies a cockroach on the floor, wanders over, and casually stabs it with his protractor. Two little crimes, then, the perpetrators of which Tsai will bring into only peripheral contact over the course of his narrative, which charts the disaffected young man’s mis-education after he quits school and becomes an obsessive observer, after a chance encounter, of the two petty hoods as they graduate from phone booths to video arcade heists.

Tsai’s work has always conveyed modern-day Taiwan as a hellish archipelago of what Daniel Bell calls the “cultural contradictions of late capitalism”: teeming, neon-lit consumer paradises share cinematic space with some of the most brutally depressing apartments ever put on film, and family units are broken or perverted by the struggle to get by. Real human connection is contingent or compromised, the pleasure derived from sex always somehow mitigated; Tsai’s characters usually find momentary relief from their ennui not by fucking or talking with someone else, but by watching people from afar. This meta-cinematic aspect of Tsai’s work is a key element of Rebels, and it came, for me at least, as something of a surprise that despite the narrative’s supple movement between its two main characters (the youth and the more sensitive of the two hoods), Tsai had in this first feature already cultivated the style that he would refine in later, “slower” work such as What Time Is It There? and Goodbye, Dragon Inn. He never lets us forget our role as spectators, both through a kind of aggressively contemplative visual scheme and by planting a series of surrogate viewers within the films. We watch the watchers as he does; we are the watchers.

A comparison with Tsai’s most recently released work, the terminal-feeling Stray Dogs, is instructive here. Dogs charts the decline of a middle-aged man (Lee again, naturally) as he attempts and fails to make a coherent life for himself and his children in the face of grinding penury and what may well be a kind of congenital predisposition to rootlessness. It begs to be read as the reductio ad absurdum of Tsai’s aesthetic—the penultimate 13-minute-long shot is of a man and a woman looking at something offscreen while she cries and he takes occasional sips from a flask. There is almost no camera movement, and I’d wager that the film, which runs at nearly two and a half hours, contains less than a hundred shots. The watcher in Dogs is an elderly woman who intuits, and eventually remedies, the children’s plight with an almost supernatural calm that seems borne of a resignation shared by the filmmaker. In contrast, the watcher of Rebels has his whole life before him, and the film accordingly combines Tsai’s beloved long, static, immaculately composed takes with a groovy synth score and a jittery handheld camera that follows the characters close through streets and alleyways. As the narrative brings the various players closer together, the cuts become more frequent, the action within the frame more dynamic, until the film finally comes to rest in the exquisitely sad and consummately Tsai-ian space of a phone-dating parlor—a tech-mecca for the desperately disconnected.

If Tsai has always been a tired filmmaker, his aesthetic has also always been one of resistance to the social forces under which his characters toil and to the conventions of both Hollywood and high-end, internationally palatable art cinema. For all of its relative formal eclecticism, Rebels resists the usual satisfactions of the “youth” movie—its rebels are not rebels at all, but young people ineluctably trapped, and their efforts to transcend their contexts (through theft, vandalism, surveillance) are inevitably circular, their rebellion made ridiculous. If Tsai seems to take more pleasure in this irony than he would in subsequent work, well, he was younger when he made it. At any rate, watching Lee Kang-sheng in Rebels, one is struck not by how much his face has aged in Tsai’s most recent—and most punishing—masterwork, but by how much it has stayed the same. The rebel boy always contained the irreparably broken middle-aged man. It was only a matter of time.

Rebels of the Neon God opens April 10th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema. A retrospective of Tsai Ming-liang’s films will take place at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY from April 10 to 26.


  1. According to Jonathan Romney, among others, in Tsai’s press notes for the Venice Film Festival premiere of Stray Dogs.
  2. Water is everywhere in Tsai’s work, as ubiquitous for him as it is for Tarkovsky, but for Tsai, water is nearly always a malignant incursion—a perpetually leaky apartment, a puddle that must be sloshed through in order to get to dry land. It is a wily destroyer, a natural force evincing supernatural impishness. When the gods put out a hit on one of Tsai’s characters, they send water.


Paul Felten

PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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