I’m sure that I’m not the first to say that I fancy Tsai Ming-liang’s unforeseen style. Watching Rebels of the Neon God is around identical to relinquishing yourself to a passive yet melancholic river stream for a little under two hours. What we have here are two separate storylines, gradually molting into a singular entity; one storyline seems so distant from the other storyline though, yet, this “other storyline” seems so consciously in contact with the “one storyline.” In Ming-liang’s world, some of us are swindled into believing that we understand the strangers in which we’re compelled to, and the strangers reign oblivious of the culprits that are compelled to them. These culprits almost seem to operate as sort of “morality” gods, but humanity doesn’t usually sit back to question even the mighty creators — yet here lies Ming-liang, doing exactly what others fear to do.
I feel inclined but also hinky to elaborate on Ming-liang’s uncanny practice in execution, as it seems nearly fruitless to describe the pukka feelings that come from experiencing a film in which words could never do it service, but I’ll try. The “I wanna f**king die” energy of its musical themes brings such a nauseating distaste to the everyday lifestyle that we heed our many characters on. There’s maybe two scenes in this entire movie that felt devised — otherwise, you could’ve fooled me that this footage was baked from high-quality documentation made from the likes of a filmmaker hooked-up on luring cinematography, attested shot-length proposals, and eerie sequencing patterns. A copious serving of Rebels of the Neon God definitely perceives our environment in a dead light, and it genuinely hurts to watch it in the best possible manner, however.
Jeepers, the nihilists will love this one, oh yes they will.
It makes sense that the stalker in this movie (Hsiao-Kang) would seek to incline punishment out of vengeance over the cruel folk that indirectly take what he desires — something Ming-liang establishes as a common, vain human instinct. To add more to the flames though, this stalker is simultaneously clashing with the unstable trauma he has from his remote father figure; it’s propelling him into this deviance. At the end of the day, it makes sense, nevertheless: the stalker has the complex of a Neon God for that matter, feeling a sudden authority to inflict on the rebels of his “kingdom.” This was always this stalker’s destiny, and as much as these strangers may not even be aware of his existence, what they commit certainly feels personal to the stalker. It seems that the Neon God really is looking over the sinners, as hypocritical as it may be objectively.
Yet, we must remember that gods are flawed too. An enemy is never as sinister as they may seem — a stranger, is still forever a stranger, and like strangers or anything for that regard, you couldn’t truly know them unless you were them. As far as I know, even gods don’t have that sort of power. Whether the stalker is the Neon God or not considering his actions do evidently seem like divine, fitting punishments for the trouble-making strangers, he ceases to have warrant to be the judge of men he isn’t in personal relation with. God or not, these strangers sentimentally and realistically understand each other better than anyone else ever will.
Rebels of the Neon God is flooded with more ideas than just this though; ideas of pointless loathing, ideas of identity-lack among a metropolitan society of similarities, ideas of artificially cynical destinies, and if the harrowing angst of the film couldn’t make it any clearer, BOOMING ideas of ethereal hopelessness found in those fighting through early adulthood. Tsai Ming-liang’s debut is easily the finest coming-of-age phenomenon I’ve seen in a while, if you could even call it that?
“Rebels of the Neon God” is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.