Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 11, 2015 7:12 pm 
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Dissolute youths in Taipei haunt Tsai's classic debut

Tsai Ming-liang's debut feature isn't considered to yet fully show his signature auteur style, but already has the air of a classic, Pasolini meets Godard with a Mandarin accent, a mixture of moody character study and touching storytelling. Set in Taiwan, the evocatively named Rebels features Tsai's sad-faced Asian boy-Buster Keaton muse Lee Kang-Sheng playing what would be his ongoing character, Hsiao-Kang. Here he is a disaffected schoolboy who unbeknownst to his cab-driver dad (Tien Miao) and sad-faced mom (Lu Yi-chiing), has quit crammer school and pocketed the refund to play, timidly, the fleshpots of Taipei. From a distance he watches a pair of young petty hoodlums, Ah-Tse (Chen Chao-jung) and his sidekick Ah-Bing (Jen Chang-bin), as they, like him, hang out in video game parlors, but unlike him, pilfer phone cash boxes and steal game computer boards to resell.

The three youths, plus a girl, Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen), a randy, skinny clerk in a roller rink who develops a doomed attraction to Ah-Tse, are interconnected in ingenious ways as the tale unfolds with a slow mix of water, dissolute youth, sex, violence, dry comedy, and a rather heartbreaking blend of youthful hope and hopelessness. The film is touched with greatness and you could already tell this was an important filmmaker on a par with his immediate Taiwan elders Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. One can also see a gay sensibility in his appetizing depiction of young males.

Tsai grabs you at once and shows his mastery of the medium with an opening scene of Ah-Tse and Ah-Bing shot inside a phone booth with rain raging outside, lighting up ciggies, then professionally breaking into the phone's cash box and removing its contents. It's raining nearly all the time, and a clogged drain in Ah-Tse's shabby flat causes the floor to fill up with water -- constant invasions of water being a theme well-known to Tsai fans, as is the presence of socially different characters moving in parallel. A sandal and an insect float away on Ah-Tse's liquified floor.

Hsiao-Kang's motorbike has been impounded by the cops for a parking violation and his dad gives him a ride in his taxi. They are going to take the afternoon off and go to the movies, which his dad says he hasn't done for years. But that plan doesn't last long. An altercation with none other than Ah-Tse on a motorcycle leads the latter to smash a widow of the cab and speed off. This is where Hsiao-Kang begins watching Ah-Tse, seeking revenge but also emulation.

As the film plays out one may think of the Italians and the French of the Fifties and Sixties, Fellini's Vitelloni or Belmondo in A bout de souffle, but translated to the freer medium of a commercialized and bustling -- and at this time in the early Nineties still gritty -- Asian city. Tsai is said to have wanted to make something even more documentary and authentic than the realist TV dramas he'd made when he first moved from his native Malasia to Taipei. Nonetheless, the "love" scenes of Rebels of the Neon God are shot in a classic way, and one has only to see Lee Kang-Sheng dancing sexily with malicious glee in pure white jockey shorts, or look into his both tragic and inexpressive face to feel a unique poetry. Or, as Jonathan Romney put it in an article about the film in Film Comment celebrating its April 2015 US theatrical debut, "what [Tsai] achieves here is to inject rough-edged realism with a dash of punkish glamour."

Rebels of the Neon God, 青少年哪吒 (Qīngshàonián Nézhā; "'Teenage Nezha"), 106 mins., Tsai Ming-liang's first feature film, debuted at Taipei Dec. 1992 and Berlin Feb. 1993, and showed at many other festivals, winning prizes at Taipei, Turin, and Tokyo. Never previously theatrically released in the US, it debuted in a new HD restoration in New York (a Big World Pictures release) shown at Lincoln Center and Quad Cinema starting 10 Apr. 2015 (Netflix score 80%). Starting at select Landmark Theatres (Nuart, Los Angeles) 12 June 2015, San Francicso Bay Area Landmark Theatres 26 June.

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