By Paul Risker.
As Rebels of the Neon God (1992) opens, one cannot help but be struck by the weighty feel of the images. It is perhaps something within the shot selection in Ming-Liang Tsai’s debut (now in release in the US), the framing and positioning of the actors in relation to the camera that lends the opening pre-title scenes a weighty feel. This feeling is then only compounded by the fade to black of the title sequence that momentarily seems to interrupt the film. But these scenes are not visually elaborate, but rather speak of film’s propensity to resonate with us in such a way that can stun our intellectual reasoning. The heaviness of feeling perhaps derives from the pending collision between characters that is being set in motion – their own gravitational forces therein imbuing these images with a weighty impression.
The film quickly unfolds as a troubled youth drama with shades of a revenge plot that is never brought to a full maturation, as one might expect. This is indicative of the director’s approach to narrative fiction. Tsai’s interest lies not in taking a strand of the interaction between his characters or a part of their personal story and developing it into a fully rounded narrative plot. Rather his interest lies seemingly in his perception of film as a series of moments in the lives of his characters, in which he takes those strands and navigates between them so that a rounded narrative dominance does not form, creating instead the impression of drifting lives that is in parallel to the heavy feel of the pre-title sequence. While this feeling of heaviness versus drifting forms a juxtaposition, there is another at play in the relationship between the filmmaker and the fate of his characters. While Tsai has gone onto become one of the celebrated directors in world cinema, looking back to the cast of characters in Rebels, they were beholden to a less enviable fate in which the future was bleak, and the present a claustrophobic and uncertain one. It creates an interesting parallel between art and life, one not so much focused on art’s emulation of life, but rather a reflection on the opposition of the two. Although who can say what the mindset of Ming-Liang Tsai was back in 1992, and therein Rebels could be seen as a doorway into the past mind of an aspiring filmmaker filled with angst.
An existentialist air permeates Rebels – a sense of hopelessness and the suggestion that our lives or our state of being are locked in an inescapable permanence. This is never better exemplified than in a tender and tearful scene shared between the young lovers Ah-tze (Chao-Jung Chen) and Ah-kuei (Yu-Wen Wang). When the latter says: “Ah-tze, let’s leave this place” he asks her: “Where do you want to go?” She nods her head as she cries and turns the question on him: “How about you?” His answer: “I have no idea.” As the young lovers stand in Ah-tze’s flooded apartment they are left in a tearful embrace as they confront the tearful future, a continuation of the theme of living amongst water.
While the survival instinct is a primitive one that has accompanied us on our evolutionary journey, Rebels testifies to the fact that survival is not necessarily twinned with happiness or contentment. The characters are surviving day by day, but are caught under the oppressive uncertainty of the many tomorrows, whether it is Hsiao-kang’s (Kang-Sheng Lee) squandered education, Ah-tze or Ah bing’s (Chang-bin Jen) life of petty crime or Ah-kuei’s unfulfilling job. For each they are confronted by the oppressive force of struggle and the grind of life in which they seem disconnected beyond survival, this in spite of their efforts to belong through work or love, from which emerges the existentialist air that permeates the film.
Returning to the earlier point of heaviness versus drifting, these juxtaposing forces are weaved throughout the film courtesy of the story and its characters, yet it equally has a musical dimension. One of the most versatile tools available to the filmmaker is music, and similar to Satyajit Ray’s dextrous use of musical themes in his Apu Trilogy, Tsai shows the same dexterous touch with his theatrical feature debut Rebels. The simplistic and recurring theme manages to take on a human quality in the way its tone changes as it resonates with us emotionally. It manages to infer the journey from ambiguous beginnings imbued with an ominous quality to not a tragedy but rather an inescapable sadness.
The image of James Dean, the cinematic icon of troubled youth, shows a cross-pollination within art and the influence of cultures on one another. But it also shows the influential force of English language cinema on world cinema, although Liang’s film has its feet firmly and comfortably set beyond borders. It is difficult to conceive how Rebels could have found a place within American cinema as its liberation from a fully rounded narrative of setup, conflict and resolution is subversive to these conventional foundations that American has been founded upon. Although this statement perhaps borders on oversimplification as there are those American directors such as Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation  and Somewhere ) and more recently Gia Coppola (Palo Alto ) who show a willingness to disown a rigid structure through their films to instead create these drifting narratives with a weighty feel. And extrapolating this discourse further, if François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) liberated Scorsese from traditional structure, then it seems that American cinema’s subversive side has been influenced by ‘the other’, which in turn these filmmakers themselves were influenced in part by American cinema. What we are in fact talking about here is the ways in which there is a propensity for cultural reinvention through cross-pollination. From a simple image of James Dean that appears briefly in Rebels, a hidden discourse is revealed of the way in which film breeds in its own way through the intellectual, emotional and artistic interactions of its filmmakers. And this is an integral part of the discussion of any film or filmmaker – how do they fit into the heritage of film as a whole.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.