Sexy and Pulsating, Tsai Ming-liang’s Most Electrifying Movie is Also his Oldest
Back in college I accidentally stumbled upon Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There?. I was trying desperately to broaden my cinematic horizons and that film had gotten some press but, forgive the cliché, nothing could have prepared me for what followed. Since then he has remained a director who I follow closely, chasing his films from festivals to Netflix, because he intrigues me and frustrates me to no end. Aggressively anti-entertainment he has pumped out an oeuvre that is marked by portraits of modern urban poverty, extreme rainfall and the most excruciating, deadening, unending static shots that you could ever hope to lay eyes on. Now, 23 years later, his debut feature Rebels of the Neon God is finally getting its initial run in U.S. theaters and it provides a fascinating glimpse into an artist who was something quite different from what he would eventually become.
The water and the poverty are on display here (often working in cahoots to repeatedly destroy the home of our protagonist thanks to a faulty drainage system) but the style Tsai employs is far more conventional and subsequently this film is much more watchable. He moves his camera from time to time, his characters have real conversations and he even indulges himself in a brief foot chase across Taipei. This won’t mean much to a movie going audience who has been weaned on the Marvel Cinematic Universe but this is coming from a director whose big action setpiece in Goodbye, Dragon Inn was watching an old lady hobble down a long corridor in painful real time. Even the appearance of Street Fighter arcade games feels like a bourgie extravagance when you think about the conditions he subjected his later characters to. When taken as a whole the differences between this, his first film, and Stray Dogs, his most recent film, serve to make the point that over time he has overplayed his hand when it comes to the poverty card. His characters here are not in healthy financial shape but they do feel like actual people, they are vibrant and emotional. Contrast that to the family at the center of Stray Dogs who seem to be nothing more than ideological signposts reminding us just how badly some people out there have it.
There is a story though it is loose and not given a ton of attention. Still it resonates and made me long for my carefree days of youth where days on end could be spent in front of video games. Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) are partners in petty crime who make the rookie mistake of letting a little female flesh come between them. In their defense the girl in question, Ah Khei (Yu-Wen Wang) is more than a little enticing not to mention they are young and stupid and know not what they do. There is a love triangle between them along with a B-plot that involves Hsiao, a lost college student who is out for revenge against our other two heroes but none of that is the point. Rather Tsai has set out to capture an exact moment in time (Taipei in the early 1990’s) and even if this isn’t precisely what it meant to live in that place and time, even if those who were actually there could poke holes in it, it was convincing enough for me. I was raised a world away from Taiwan and still the misadventures of these young adults felt familiar to me to the point that I noticed my emotions starting to well up near the end even though everything about the romantic entanglement on display smelled like disaster from the opening scene. For anyone who has ever felt the sting of young love or been devastated by someone’s oblivious immaturity it is impossible not to feel something for them.
On his own terms Tsai has built a remarkably acclaimed career by making movies that feel uniquely his own so in no way am I begrudging his choices. That said, a career that would’ve followed the trajectory set forth by this debut feature probably would have ended up meaning a lot more to me.