Towards the end of Tsai Ming-liangs’s Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒, Qīngshàonián Nézhā), a young man exasperatingly stuffs a series of rags into the busted drain in his kitchen which has been relentlessly leaking water all over the apartment. In many ways it’s a kind of metaphor for his life as he attempts to staunch the flow of “bad luck” he’s been experiencing over the last few days, but like so many things for him it does not quite go to plan. 

As to why, it’s not exactly clear except that A-tze (Chen Chao-jung) is a kind of outcast beneath the neon skies of a changing Taipei. He and his friend A-ping (Jen Chang-bin) earn their money breaking into telephone boxes and vending machines for loose change before at one point stealing the motherboards from arcade consoles and unsuccessfully trying to sell them back to the person they stole them from. All they get for their pain is a literal battering while A-tze’s frustrated romance with sometime girlfriend Mei-kuei (Wang Yu-wen) similarly flounders in the wake of his ennui. 

The karmic debt he bears is however mainly down to a random act of pointless violence in knocking the wing mirror off a taxi driver’s car for no real reason save momentary impulse. Even so, the taxi driver’s son Xiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) had already been watching him and soon discovers a fascination with the rebellious young man that is ambiguous in quality. What becomes obvious is that Hsiao-kang is at odds with the world in which he lives. His mother (Lu Yi-ching) reveals that a fortune teller told her he is the reincarnation of “Neon God” Nezha, a chaotic child who later killed the authoritarian father with whom he could not get along. Hsiao-kang’s mother tells this to her husband (Miao Tien) as a kind of warning, advising that his authoritarian parenting style is doing his son no good, but Mr. Lee isn’t minded to listen. Finding out that Hsiao-kang has dropped out of cram school and kept the refunded tuition money for himself, Mr. Lee throws him out which of course leaves him free to follow A-tze all around Taipei day and night before childishly damaging his motorcycle. 

In disabling the bike, Hsiao-kang perhaps hoped to ruin A-tze’s freedom, symbolically taking from him independence and a sense of possibility. Then again, perhaps in another way he hoped to engineer a friendship. Riding around on his own scooter, he draws up behind A-tze pushing his to a garage and offers help but A-tze tells him to buzz off. In fact, A-tze never acknowledges Hsiao-kang. He never recognises him or realises that he’s being followed though he does later remember Mr. Lee and is struck by guilty futility not really knowing why he decided to arbitrarily ruin someone’s day while reflecting that all his days are ruined. The water in his apartment continues to rise all around him as if emphasising his mounting sense of despair. Mei-kuei tries to break up with A-tze before asking him to go away with her. They ask each other where they would go, but neither has any answer. 

A remorseful Mr. Lee later comes home and makes the point of leaving the front door ajar, symbolically open to his son’s return while Hsiao-kang remains lost. He visits a telephone dating service having heard Mei-kuei moonlight by answering one while working at the ice rink, but in the end cannot even pick up the phone. Staring at a picture of James Dean, he longs for the sense of rebellion he is drawn to in A-tze but is still the chaotic boy, dancing wildly like a wheelless Nezha and seemingly with no further sense of direction. In the end, it’s the city of Taipei which is the “neon god” of the title, arbitrarily ruling over each of the boy’s lives even as it ironically emerges from the authoritarian past into hypermodern urbanity. Hsiao-kang is little better off than the cockroach he ironically skewers on the point of his compass, and A-tze little than that which circles his overflowing drain carried inexorably on the current on a circular journey towards nowhere in particular. Many of Tsai’s key themes are already here, urban alienation, loneliness, futility, and the crushing sense of emptiness of life in the contemporary era even as he turns his gaze to the overcast skies of a city lit only by despair.

Rebels of the Neon God screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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