Tsai Ming Ling burst into the cinematic universe with Rebels of the Neon God scripting a primal portrait of youth in a city. The movie is an achievement in arresting the most dissident and disobedient period of our life time in an earnest impersonal manner. Neon (Nezha)in Chinese mythology is an impulsive irreverent God who shelters in him the desire to kill his creator. Tsai Ming Ling refers to youth as the horsemen of the God.
The story revolves around two young men Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng)and Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) in Taipei city. They are emblematic of two extreme ends of the youth spectrum. Very different in their mannerisms and their ability to negotiate with the circumstances. Their paths cross in a very accidental fashion creating a very voyeuristic piece of cinema.
Hsiao Kang is the under-confident, parent fearing, not so good looking, frustrated young man who attends a cram school to get though exams. His parents are over bearing, and superstitious .He is mediocre in every aspect of life and he knows it. He hates his uneventful banal life which is spent in the confines of the cram school and his home.But Kang expresses nothing, though frustration simmers in him.
Ah Tze is flamboyant,handsome, confident and spontaneous. He is irreverent of all people and institutions around him. He and his friend robs telephone booths, computers and uses the proceeds to play video games. He dates and is bored after sex and leaves the girl in the hotel to play video games somewhere else. There is rage in him which is unleashed instinctively and insensitively at random things and people.
But both of them are united by the lack of purpose in lives. Kang is living by his parents rules and pressures of exams and finds no agency to have anything of his own. Ah Tze is free or may be too free, he does what he wants but despite all the agency he is also unable to distill any meaning out of his life. Both of them are at different vantage points of the same demographic but staring at the same abyss.
The director (Ling)is unapologetic in flaunting both the temples and prisons of youth in a city. The unending pleasures of the video gaming parlours, the motels, the disco, the cheap eateries,the motor bikes,the claustrophobic sex chat rooms and the unwavering addiction to pornography. On the other hand the shackles of intrusive and arrogant parenting,the squalor of leaking apartments, the coaching institutes which resemble poultry farms and the complete absence of a credible source of income. But what is most pervasive and tangible in the Rebels is the indifference of youth and towards youth.
Unlike Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) a movie which deals with the issues of adolescence, Lings protagonists do not come together to create a sense of brotherhood and meaning to their lives. Ling keeps them real and haunted by the inability to understand themselves or the world around them. Hope or ambition have not infiltrated them, they do not identify themselves with anything other than the fact that they are young. What the Bharathan-Mohanlal movie Thazvaaram (1990) is to revenge, Rebels of Neon God is to youth.
The movie is also interrupted with a very classy yet somewhere punk background score which erupts at critical points in the movie.
Rebels of the Neon God is the cinematic equivalent of tattoos that we got in our youth, most of which are rendered obsolete due to a family of reasons. Yet they are undeniably alive reminiscent of our unapologetic youth, its pride, its derision and its colossal ability to scar and transform us.