The story of a disenchanted youth (Lee) who drops out of school after becoming obsessed with a local petty criminal (played by Chen Chao-jung), Rebels introduces what have since become the hallmarks of Tsai’s style: a preoccupation with the fractured nuclear family, which is explored onscreen by Lee, Miao Tien as his father, and Lu Hsiao-ling as his mother, all of whom return in nearly identical roles in The River and What Time Is It There? (2001); an attention to the rootless nihilism of Taipei’s youth; the juxtaposition of contemporary mores and traditional Eastern religion, most often enacted in the mother’s ceremonial adherence to Buddhist ritual; an interest in sex as an immediate but ultimately unsatisfying act of catharsis; and a symbolic obsession with water.
Fernando F. Croce at CinePassion:
It’s typical of the movie’s web of aching disconnection that paths are constantly crisscrossing yet the characters remain strangers to each another and themselves, moments between disenchanted mallrats or a clueless misfit and his cabby dad (Tien Miao) rendered with the same sensitivity to their fragility. Water is already Tsai’s tenacious motif, from the outpourings to Chen’s losing standoff with an overflowing drain, but this is a harsher, bleaker, more earthbound portrait than the director’s subsequent works — shorn of Tsai’s surreptitious drollness and regenerative lyricism, the film shifts Taiwan’s wobbly identity from the pastorals of Hou Hsiao-hsien to glittering urban cages, where the ephemeral pleasures of a false neon god only paper the cultural cracks in a nation’s soul.
Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot:
Having grown up in Cincinnati, literally half a world from the Tsai’s Taipei, I can only marvel-as Susan Ray marveled-upon Tsai’s accomplishment. Rebels is, in short, the most spot-on portrait of the fluorescent mall culture of a decade past, and of its attendant adolescent anomie (the characters in Rebels seem to be mostly around 20, but boy does this movie feel eighth grade to me), that I have ever seen, and few of the setting’s fetishes, trinkets, and images are untranslatable between hemispheres. The cut-off shorts, the bluffed arrogance, the gaudy costume jewelry, the weird, religious parents, the hours of Tetris, the lighter burns on skinny biceps, the “What are we gonna do with her?” drunk girl on rubbery legs, and the tee-shirts tucked into powder-blue denim are all present, and all adorning a deep, lugubrious emotional base.
Though I’m loathe to use the word “realistic,” I think there’s something truer about Tsai’s film; the sex and trivial larcenies are here, but also fully intact are those long, fallow periods of playing with one joystick or another until your thumbs hurt or you’ve rubbed your prick raw. There’s a wealth of scenes of the actors alone, left to their devices, playing out little scenes pitched perfectly to the unique qualities of aloneness. Minor oddities, events, and inconveniences, by virtue of existing amidst so much silence and negative space, are escalated to larger, symbolic status. And so a cockroach impaled on a compass becomes a minor character, an elevator that always stops on the wrong floor plays like an omen, and an estranged father’s sudden offer to go to the movies seems to carry a suggestion of salvation
Chris Fujiwara in the Boston Phoenix:
Water is the film’s dominant element: the first shot shows Ah Tse and a pal robbing a pay phone at night in a pouring rain, and later Ah Tse returns to his apartment to find it flooded. (Those who derive their knowledge of Taiwan mainly from Tsai’s films may get the impression that the island is largely under water.) The omnipresence of water sensitizes us to a deep melancholy that the film rarely makes explicit but whose underlying presence explains such moments as the shared tears of Ah Tse and his girlfriend near the end of the film.
The world of Rebels of the Neon God is one of constant, inexplicable disjunction: elevator doors open on the wrong floor; a slipper, a cigarette stub, and a dented can float listlessly in Ah Tse’s apartment; Hsiao-kang’s father and mother share the same visual field but not the same universe; Hsiao-kang pulls up on his motorbike to turn and look back as Ah Tse chases his estranged girlfriend. The emotional high point comes with the extreme vandalism Hsiao-kang unleashes on Ah Tse’s motorbike as he slashes its tires and seat and spraypaints the word “AIDS” on it. It’s no act of hate but a bizarre attempt at closeness — a cry for love worthy of Sal Mineo’s Plato in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, which Tsai’s film cites.
From Persistence of Vision:
True to form, Rebels of the Neon God is a laudable first film that doesn’t forget to pay tribute to the director’s considerable filmgoing. Thematically speaking, Rebels mirrors the urban alienation that preoccupies Antonioni in such films as La Notte and L’Eclisse. Obsessed with the more “modern” milieus of cities, Tsai would go on to problematize urban relationships in such films as Vive L’Amour and The Hole
A more fascinating aspect of Tsai’s film, however, is its seeming wealth of references and allusions to Filipino films. Rebels of the Neon God may very well be Tsai’s sneaking tribute to Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon, probably the nearest film to depict the crushing and grinding stranglehold of a city. Lee Kang-Sheng’s Hsiao Kang, the central outsider-loner of Tsai’s film, bears an uncanny resemblance and countenance to Bembol Roco’s shell-shocked provincial Julio Madiaga in Brocka’s masterpiece. As Julio Madiaga is cornered by a murderous mob towards the film’s end, Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, who have just been caught stealing motherboards from video game machines, suffer a very similar fate in the denouement of Tsai’s film. The similarities are, well, uncanny.
Jeremy Heilman at MovieMartyr.com:
Every facet of Rebels’ visual design seems to exist solely to criticize the ugly overkill of metropolitan sprawl. Excess signage, written in both Chinese and English for added visual impact, dominates the Taipei streets to the extent that the buildings they hang on are barely visible. Bike racks, classrooms, and roadways are all overcrowded jumbles of activity. The video arcades and roller rinks that serve as venues for enjoyment can only distinguish themselves from the cacophony of the real world by cranking up the levels of the visual and aural stimulants that they offer to even more unreal heights. Small hints of traditional culture exist here and there, but since it is made to compete against the flashy and new, it inevitably feels marginalized. The apartments that supposedly offer refuge from all this are nondescript, functional husks, devoid of much personality outside of one’s distinctive choice in television programming. Perhaps worst of all, the unstoppable flooding that fills one character’s floor on a nightly basis seems to suggest that the tide of the outside world won’t even allow this space to exist without the tide of external influence.
Rebels showcases the first of many collaborations between Tsai and actor Lee kang-sheng, who would go on to appear in six more of Tsai’s films. In an interviewwith Senses of Cinema’s Volker Hummel, Lee discusses filming with Tsai and aspects of Tsai’s filmmaking that influenced his own 2003 feature, The Missing:
I remember the first time we worked together. The first two days went by without any problems but the third day was really hard. There was one simple movement, I had to turn my head and look at something. I had already done that four or five times and he said those shots were no good and had to be redone. He said, “Lee Kang-sheng, can’t you be a little more natural in this movement?” I remember we were on location and that day was really cold. I got angry because we did that shot so many times already, and I said, “Well, this is how I naturally am”. I think that sentence was very important because up to that point he was probably working with the notion that there’s some kind of standard motion for someone who turns his head. And also that there’s a certain speed with which actors should talk. I did not have all these traditional notions of acting so I disrupted that way of thinking.
It only touches upon Rebels briefly, but Dennis Lim’s overview of Tsai’s oeuvre in the Village Voice is a nice primer for, and appreciation of, the director’s work:
Balancing reticence with boundless compassion, despondency with deadpan absurdity, debilitating inertia with a visceral urge for escape, Tsai Ming-liang’s unblinking portraits of rootlessness in post-boom Taiwan double as trenchant anatomies of desire—in particular the disavowed, diverted, and repressed varieties. Nothing if not a city of sadness, his Taipei is a sort of overpopulated ghost town whose heartsick inhabitants, entombed in anonymous, mausoleum-like high-rises, seem to exist in their own private limbo—their chronic unease exacerbated by an incessant murmur of white noise and a mind-boggling array of plumbing woes. Even more waterlogged than the Wong Kar-wai oeuvre, Tsai’s films return time and again to a single element: a flooded apartment in Rebels of the Neon God, a convulsive torrent of tears in Vive L’amour, an ominous leaky ceiling in The River, an apocalyptic downpour in The Hole.
And so is Jared Rapfogel’s essay in “Senses of Cinema”:
Sad is easy; comedy, especially when it has to coexist with, rather than dispel the sadness, is less so. Tsai’s most important collaborator in this respect is his lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng, who has starred in all five of his films. Lee is a non-professional with a remarkably strong, unusual screen presence. He’s not called upon to act, exactly, but simply to be and to behave. If Tsai provides the comedy, Lee takes care of the deadpan. His expression never changes, but he seems entirely comfortable before the camera and, most importantly, he has the rare, elusive, almost metaphysical gift of being able to convince us that he is truly alone in a room, completely unaware of the gaze of the camera. Tsai and Lee are perfectly suited to celebrate the comedy of solitude. In film after film, Lee spends a great deal of screen time alone, behaving the way people generally behave (but are rarely portrayed behaving) when they’re alone – that is to say, very oddly.
This preoccupation with filming people alone with themselves (not just Lee but all the characters, and not just eccentric behavior but their most private actions – masturbating, going to the bathroom, and so on) has several peculiar results. For one thing, it helps to explain the strangely static quality of the movies. Tsai’s project, in a sense, is to photograph loneliness, and so there’s very little development or drama in most of his scenes – they don’t so much progress as they do simply last. And taken together, they don’t flow into each other, creating a strong sense of forward narrative movement – they simply accumulate, falling into place like pieces in a puzzle…This is what gives Tsai’s films their remarkable sense of presence, and their tremendous emotional weight. Tsai brings his films to a halt to let us in.