When a director wants to show me a group of people with aimless, directionless lives, I get a little suspicious: How do I know this isn't just a ploy to divert attention from the possibility that there's just plain nothing going on? But a good director can make a good movie about nearly anything, and Rebels of the Neon God is surprisingly haunting, attention-getting and -retaining for a movie where very little actually happens.
Rebels takes place in modern-day Taipei, a cluttered and noisy city much like Hong Kong, where a loose affiliation of teenagers and twentysomethings drift through malls, hotels, restaurants, bars, video arcades and roller rinks. Occasionally they collide, but mostly they just drift. Sometimes they drift into crime, as in the opening scene, where two youths, Ah-tze (Chao-jung Chen, also of Eat Drink Man Woman) and Ah-ming (Chang-bin Jen), break into the coin box of a public phone booth and spend the take at a local game parlor. At the game consoles, their faces are bored and passive; the only time they seem remotely excited is when they're stealing something.
A third boy crosses their paths: Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee, also of Tsai's The Hole), a student stuck in makeup classes who is also just marking time. His first scene is bleakly funny in a vein of deadpan humor that much of the movie mines quite thoroughly: he stabs a cockroach with the point of his compass, throws it out the window, and then stupidly tries to swat it when it flies back against the window. The window breaks, and he bandages his hand, trying to ignore the insistent questions of his aging, out-of-touch parents.
Hsiao-Kang's father, a cabdriver (Tien Miao, from A Touch of Zen), may be unable to connect with his son in any real way, but he's not as self-deluding as the boy's mother. She visits a temple service and comes back convinced that the boy is the reincarnation of a god. Hsiao-Kang doesn't even seem to care about the attention, one way or another. One day Ah-tze drives up to the father's cab and spitefully smashes the side mirror, an act which slowly goads Hsiao-Kang into learning more about these two delinquents and maybe even exact a kind of revenge on them. He drops out of school, cashing in what's left of his tuition, but finds even less in his own path than the one he was already treading.
Eventually a fourth person comes into their orbit: Ah-kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), a roller-rink check girl, who becomes something of a girlfriend to both of the thieves. They don't want sex from her, it seems, but something a little deeper — companionship-of-a-sort, something they can't get from each other. At one point they go out and get drunk, and then deposit her in a motel room with a porno movie playing on the TV. But neither of them have the gumption to do anything, and so leave her — or maybe it's respect. Ironically enough, when she calls them the next day, she's suspicious and angry, and then regretful for having thought so little of them.
What makes Rebels different — it's not a "teen revenge" movie, despite the plotting — is its stately pacing and sad insights into its characters. Ming-Liang Tsai is heralded as one of Taiwan's big new directors (along with Edward Yang, of Yi Yi), although he — along with most of Taiwan's cinema in general — is only now beginning to get any kind of recognition in the West. Rebels was filmed in 1992, the director's first feature-length production (he'd done movies for TV and shorts before this), but it comes on with such grace and assurance that I swore I was watching a seasoned professional at work.
Rebels is filled with gorgeous shots, set up so offhandedly that they become all the more endearing. Every corner of every shot is crammed with something — neon signs, lights, video game displays, posters — with the net effect being that the people themselves seem hopelessly boxed in by their own environment. The glumness of the subject matter is also punctuated nicely by a weirdly off-center sense of humor. At one point the two thieves break into a video arcade, and based on the earlier setup with the pay phones, we assume they are going to rob the cash boxes. We are wrong, and the way the scene develops from there leads into one of the movie's biggest reversals of fortune, showing that the boys are simply too clever for their own good.
While most of the movie is flatly factual, there's one overtly symbolic touch which is handled so deftly it doesn't even register as one at first. One of the characters has a drain in the floor of his apartment, which stops up and overflows with depressing regularity, flooding the rest of his apartment. Towards the end of the movie, the drain overruns again, sending water trickling under the door of the bedroom, but the characters inside are so caught up in themselves (and each other) that they barely notice they're slogging through ankle-deep sewage when they step outside.
Rebels is also aptly named. The kids shown here are offered little more than the prospects of the irrelevancies of school, monotonous dead-end jobs, or crime. The irony is that by lashing out against their world, they only wind up miring themselves all the more in it. Their spiritual desiccation is summed up wonderfully in the very last scene: a character sits in a plywood booth waiting for a "pay date" to call him by phone, but is so withdrawn he can't even be bothered to pick up the receiver. The movie seems to be suggesting, not very subtly, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere even if he did. What makes all of this work, I suspect, is that we're not inspired to laugh at them or feel superior, but just observe and empathize.