I love Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang. He’s one of my favorite directors and he has such a unique and beautiful vision of the world. His films are a running collection of the same themes—urban isolation, loneliness, love, and the power of the mundane daily existence. Tsai’s style is deceptively simple as he often barely moves the camera or delivers unbelievably long takes on his non-action. His films are always beautifully shot and at times resemble paintings or vibrant photographs.
Unfortunately, living in Oklahoma means I’ve missed his most recent films—I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and The Wayward Cloud—but I recommend these two I saw in 2001 while living in New York and Goodbye, Dragon Inn and What Time Is It There? as must see Tsai.
First up, Rebels of the Neon God from 1992. Tsai’s first feature is a brooding rumination on the lonely wanderings of lost youth during the night in Taipei.
Rebels of the Neon God uses little dialogue (a Tsai trait) and has damaged, lonely teens that drench Taipei with neon lights, seedy wet streets, back alleys, kids on motorcycles, love hotels and video game parlors.
Ah Tze lives with his brother in squalor in an apartment that has serious problems with drainage as water seeps up and covers the floor with an inch or two of water. Ah Tze and his pal Ah Ping sleep days and at night commit petty robberies, such as stealing from phone boxes so they can play video games all night.
Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng, who is in all of Tsai's films and is kind of his screen alter ego) is silently drifting through life. Not into school, at odds with his taxi driving father and his mother thinks he's the reincarnated, mischievous god Nezha (which produces a very funny scene with Hsiao Kang pretending to be possessed). Hsiao Kang begins to follow Ah Tze around during the night and trouble may ensue.
I like Tsai's style, as he will linger on a shot or scene much longer than usual in films today. Sometimes there are these long takes where hardly anything at all is even going on, just a person sitting smoking or wandering around Taipei streets minute after minute. Tsai’s willingness to hold the camera on these mundane aspects so fearlessly allows him to really carve into the void of these empty young people's lives.
Rebels of the Neon God is not only good and unique, it is a great beginning place to discover the world of Tsai Ming-Liang.