If Tsai Ming-Liang doesn’t seem to carry the same cachet in the U.S. as some of his Taiwanese New Wave colleagues, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Edward Yang, it might have something to do with the persistent inexplicability that runs through so many of his movies. Aside from a general, Antonioni-esque urban alienation in “Vive l’Amour,” “The River,” or “The Wayward Cloud,” it is difficult to say with any sort of authority in what the significance of Tsai’s cinema consists: What is the deal with all the watermelons and water imagery that appear in his films? Why do so many of his movies feature a guy named Hsiao-kang (all played by Lee Kang-Sheng)? And what the fuck are these Taipei weirdos up to anyway?
The director’s first feature, “Rebels of the Neon God,” is the urtext of Tsai-ian inexplicability. It nominally tells the stories of the aforementioned Hsiao-kang, a teenage student living uneasily with his parents in Taipei, and of Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Jen Chang-bin), two brothers and petty thieves who spend their time ripping off arcades and pay phones and hanging out with Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-Wen), Ah Tze’s ambivalent girlfriend. But the movie is paradoxically both more and less than that single-sentence plot summary suggests. On the one hand, it is difficult to argue that “Rebels of the Neon God” has any sort of plot at all, at least in the structurally traditional sense. Hsiao-kang fights with his parents, quits school, and gets kicked out of the house, but otherwise his trajectory is aimless. And the same can be said of Ah Bing and Ah Tze: They tool around the city on their motorcycles, get drunk, steal shit and occasionally get beat up to no apparent end at all.
And yet, “Rebels of the Neon God,” like so many of the director’s subsequent movies, is a sincere meditation on the social fracturing that is the major byproduct of Taiwan’s turbulent postwar history.
Traditional belief systems rub up against lightning-paced urbanization in Tsai’s Taipei. The original Chinese-language title of the movie alludes to Nezha, a teenage god from classical Chinese mythology, who had a decidedly Freudian family life. We learn from Hsiao-kang’s mother that a priestess once said of her son that he is the reincarnated Nezha. She suggests to her husband that this is the reason why he has a hard time getting along with his son: “You know who Nezha hated the most? His old man, Lee-Chin. You know who Lee-Chin is, don’t you? He was the celestial king who built a bejeweled tower. The tower was for locking up his son.”
It’s a nice thought, but the tensions between Hsiao-kang and his dad are nothing more than a version of the same rivalry that has plagued fathers and sons from time immemorial. Besides, Hsiao-kang is a legitimately baffling kid. The boy overhears the aforementioned conversation between his parents and seems to take it to heart, dancing around muttering high-pitched gibberish and ultimately withdrawing himself from school and pocketing the tuition, which gets him thrown out of his parents’ house. Alighting on his own, Hsiao-kang ups the ante on the low-key obsession he has cultivated for Ah Tze and Ah Kuei, which itself was instigated by a chance encounter between the couple and the boy, in which Ah Tze smashed the rearview mirror of Hsiao-kang’s father’s taxicab, passing it off as a collision with another driver in an oblique nod to Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle.”
All the same, there is also a lot to puzzle cinemagoers who don’t relish the murk of inexplicability. The movie ends at a seemingly arbitrary moment after Hsiao-kang vandalizes Ah Tze’s motorcycle and Ah Bing is beaten senseless by the owners of an arcade who suspect that the computer game motherboards the brothers are attempting to sell them were stolen from them in the first place. And what is going on with the water that keeps burbling up from the drains in the brothers’ apartment? Anyone who has taken an intro to literature course will recognize the attendant and often contradictory symbolism suggested by water. But perhaps a better strategy than seeking explanations is to sit with the movie’s inexplicables and consider why they bother us so much. Then go watch the rest of the director’s body of work.