Rebels of the Neon God (1992) is an exquisitely controlled movie. It's also a nakedly desperate work, in which anguish and isolation radiate from nearly every frame. I think it's best to start with this seeming contrast: intense emotion and rigorous calculation are commonly thought of as opposed to each other, and, outside of art, they usually are. Saying that the movie's writer-director, Tsai Ming-liang, tempers his pain with his artistry is too neat a formulation; what's more plausible is that, to the extent to which they're distinguishable, each inflects the other, and neither one comes first. There are doublings, recurrences and rhymes in the film’s narrative of alienated youth in 90s Taipei; the action is elaborately composed and unfolds in long, perfectly timed takes; and the level of agony and ennui is feverish. It's probably best to say—to speculate—that Tsai, in his theatrical feature debut, found an aesthetic to go with his feelings, and feelings to go with his aesthetic.
It’s about four minutes into the film that we hear its first line of dialogue: a woman asking her son to explain what is, to us and possibly to him, inexplicable. The scene starts with a skittering insect. Alone in his room and pretending to be studying algebra, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) impales the bug with his protractor. Pressing the tip into the top of his desk, he watches his tiny prey come to near-death, then opens the window and flicks it off the instrument. The bug sticks on the outside of the pane, however, and Hsiao-kang winds up breaking the glass trying to knock his discarded quarry off without touching it. As he’s bleeding in the bathroom, his mom (Lu Yi-ching) calls out, “What on earth happened?”
What, indeed? We have a bit of low comedy and a vague, tentative character sketch. But there’s more: a sense of frustration, an aggression combined with phobia and displacement, a small failure that hints at a larger, undefined problem. We’ll see Hsiao-kang drop out of school and commit stalking, trespassing and vandalism, all with hardly a word spoken or a change of the sad expression on his face. But first, this strange little précis.
Hsiao-kang isn’t the only protagonist of the movie. We first see Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung) and his buddy Ah-ping (Jen Chang-bin) in the rainy night, ripping off the coins from a payphone. Ah-tze’s pathologies are of a more familiar type than Hsiao-kang’s: he’s a petty street criminal who pulls minor scams and rip-offs, possibly because he lacks the smarts or guts to go for anything bigger. Like all Tsai characters, he doesn’t have much to say, and his needs might seem merely material and sexual if it weren’t for some more symbolism that the filmmaker employs. Ah-tze lives in a rundown building with an elevator that stops on the wrong floor, every single time, on its way up to his apartment; and when we first see him enter the flat it’s flooded, with a clogged up draining grate. Cigarette butts and bugs (there they are again) float in the water. Flooding is a motif Tsai will return to in The River (1997), Visage (2009) and elsewhere. It’s a symbol of repression and release—of desire bursting at last through the cracks in the dam.
Another significant Tsai trope is the coming together of strangers through odd circumstance. Hsiao-kang exchanges no more than a few words with Ah-tze in Rebels of the Neon God, but the one-sided relationship between the two is at the core of the film. The protagonists’ lives first intersect when the young thug gets in a minor traffic dispute with Hsiao-kang’s dad (Tien Miao) and smashes the mirror of his cab. Sneaking after Ah-tze as he parties, sits in arcades and beds down with a similarly aimless girl (Wang Yu-wen), the lonely, obsessive dropout is seeking some kind of release. Is it violent, sexual, something stranger or all the above?
With its symbolic rhymes; its long, hypnotic takes; and its exquisite shots, with their graphic concision and frames within frames, Rebels of a Neon God is a gorgeous movie. Inflated through duration and visual allure, the images seem to stand alone even as they tell a story together. And with the story so full of ambiguity—especially at first—the shots seem like pieces of a puzzle that may never be put together.
From arcades to classrooms to apartment buildings, the film’s settings are bland and utilitarian, yet they’re transformed by cutting, composition and context into something beautiful. It’s filmmakers like Tsai who’ve taught me that beauty can be a matter of how you look at something as much as what you look at. That’s one of the key lessons of modernist filmmaking, and you can see it demonstrated again and again in the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and so many others.
Tsai’s films are part of a tradition—one that was fruitfully developing at the time of Rebels of the Neon God and that now dominates international art cinema. Origins are always a sticky matter, but it’s pretty safe to say that what’s called “Contemporary Contemplative Cinema” or, much more crudely, “slow cinema,” has ancestry in the films of Roberto Rossellini, Yasujiro Ozu and a few others; approached clearer definition in Antonioni’s films of the early 60s; continued as a tendency in the movies of Straub-Huillet, Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos and a few others; edged into a recognizable movement in the 80s and 90s with the work of filmmakers like Kiarostami, Tsai and Hou, and now exists as something like a norm. Some will dispute my historical gloss, and some have argued that putting such a diverse group of films under a single category is reductive, but there’s no denying that long takes, spare camera movement, what could mildly be called dramatic restraint, and a stress on the exterior over subjectivity or conventional characterization are now common as can be on the film festival circuit—which is exactly where so many “slow cinema” films stay in terms of theatrical presentation.
To me, this kind of filmmaking is, on the surface level at least, more recognizable, definable and delimited than many other identified film movements, but of course, of course, we have to go beneath, and that's where Tsai’s movies stand out as the work of a true eccentric—just like the best films of any movement do. In his work, everything bends towards private psychology—that’s what sets him apart from so many of his peers. When you work them in with the filmmaker’s unique symbolism, the long takes evoke the agony of sexual frustration, the rigid camera positioning shows a fetishistic fixation, and the lack of conventional drama evokes depression. So whose frustration, whose fixation, whose depression? The obvious answer is: that of the characters, and that of the director. Tsai is one of the most deeply confessional filmmakers in contemporary art cinema, and as such he stands apart from most of his contemporaries.
The late Robin Wood, in his piece on Claire Denis’s I Can’t Sleep (1994), contrasted her work with that of “many of our most celebrated arthouse directors.” When I read him on Denis, I think of most our contemporary arthouse auteurs:
Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’
That, to me, is most “Contemporary Contemplative Cinema.” But it’s the triumph of Tsai Ming-liang that he manages to bridge the intimate with the distant, the psychosexual with the material. He may hold us at a remove, but he's not afraid to tell us his secrets. In his films I see a soul—not one laid bare, exactly, for I don’t think that can ever really happen in cinema, but one filtered through technique, through tradition, through engagement with the physical world. It’s that world that all the great filmmakers are emboldened by; it’s their inspiration, their material and their confinement. Tsai puts himself behind the surface of crowded arcades, traffic-clogged streets, ugly apartments. But those apartments are flooded; it’s the soul coming through despite everything in this world that seeks to block it.