Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule # 30 Rebels of the Neon God [1992] ★★★½

In ancient Chinese mythology, the wife of a powerful military commander gave birth to a ball of flesh after three and a half years of pregnancy. From this ball emerged an unruly, disobedient young boy who walked and talked like an adult. He eventually tried to kill his father, but the father instead gained control over him with the gift of a miniature pagoda from a Taoist immortal. Named Nezha, the boy would become a highly revered protection deity in Chinese folk religion. This, then, is the context behind the literal title of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s debut feature film: Teenage Nezha. Renamed Rebels of the Neon God in the West—which in this humble critic’s opinion is the superior title, both for its catchiness and the double-meaning of “Neon God” which can also refer to the neon-lit capitalist sprawl of early nineties Taiwan—the film tells the story of Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), an alienated student trapped in cram school studying for college entrance exams. His existential malaise manifests in antisocial behavior that leads his parents to believe he’s a troublemaking truant. Eventually he runs into the film’s three deuteragonists: two actual criminal truants Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Ping (Jen Chang-bin) and Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-wen), a directionless young woman who latches onto them in her off hours from her job at a skating rink. Hsiao Kang becomes obsessed with the three, stalking them at night as they cavort about their unnamed city. Eventually Hsiao Kang’s fascination explodes into possessive jealousy, sabotaging Ah Tze’s motorcycle when he and Ah Kuei rent a hotel room to have sex. (My print didn’t translate the Chinese characters Hsiao Kang spray painted on the sidewalk by the bike which apparently spelled out “Here is Nezha.” What didn’t need subtitles was Hsiao Kang spraying “AIDS” on the bike itself.) It’s not that he specifically desires Ah Kuei; instead he idolizes their carefree, lawless lifestyles. What he doesn’t see is the hollowness and desperation of their actual lives, best summarized by Ah Tze’s perpetually flooded apartment. By the end of the film, two of the three will cowardly abandon the third after they’re assaulted, showing that even their bonds of friendship are a tenuous illusion. Coolly detached, Rebels of the Neon God offers no salvation for its disaffected youth—nor does it suggest they deserve any.

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