Neon Wave

In a way, it is strangely appropriate that Tsai’s first film should have waited twenty-three years to appear in the United States. Tsai is a director obsessed with what the French call décalage, a kind of jet lag. The rhetoric of development used about East Asia—and elsewhere in the “developing” world—presumes a certain kind of linear, progressive time, or movement forward in time. Its voice insists that places like Taipei must catch up.

On Tsai Ming-liang

film still via Zero Focus

Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), received its US premiere on April 10 and is currently playing at Quad Cinema and Lincoln Center in conjunction with a retrospective of the director’s work at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

At least once a summer, the government of Taipei calls a “typhoon day.” As storms sweeping up from the Philippines lash the city, the subway, schools, and other public offices shut down. But Ximen, the shopping and entertainment district, stays open. During the only typhoon of last summer, my husband and I waited until the winds slowed and then walked for the hour and a half it took to get there from our apartment. Although most businesses had closed the night before, in Ximen we could eat beef noodles and almond tofu. We watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 3D with crowds of other slightly bedraggled people who had braved the rain to enjoy a midweek holiday.

Pronounced (roughly) she-mun, the name means “west gate,” which is what this area of the city was until around 1900, when Japanese colonial rulers decided to turn it into a commercial district. Because Ximen was modeled on similar districts in Tokyo, and because it remains full of stores selling Japanese products, people still call it the “Harajuku” or “Shibuya of Taipei.” But with the exception of a few historic buildings, it has been completely redeveloped since the 1990s.

When Taiwan shifted toward political democratization and economic liberalization, the new government began selling large tracts of public property in order to raise capital. As banking was deregulated and state monopolies were broken up, foreign investment poured in, transforming the island into one of the four “Asian Tigers.” Urban development projects sprang up across the city, culminating with the opening of the Taipei 101 tower in 2004. It remained the world’s tallest skyscraper for six years, until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai opened.

Ximen is where the teenage heroes of Rebels of the Neon God are going when they first cross paths. Like most of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, Rebels of the Neon God takes place in Taipei, following characters who are struggling to make their ways around the metropolis as it is broken down and rebuilt. A sense of being adrift has been a recurring theme throughout Tsai’s career. Though Tsai himself has become famous as the foremost figure of the second “Taiwanese New Wave,” he comes from Malaysia and is only, as everyone says these days, based in Taiwan. He has made several features in France. He does not fit easily into the kind of national category with which film festivals still tend to label filmmakers.

This makes him unlike his predecessors, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, who became known internationally as the leader of the first Taiwanese New Wave, and who constantly depicted scenes from the history of his country. Hou’s most famous film, A City of Sadness (1989) is a melancholy national epic. The film starts in 1945, with a scene of a woman in labor—or rather, a scene of the household where she is in labor, dominated by the men who are standing around the living room, listening to a radio. World War II has just ended, and the Japanese are leaving. Mother and child remain in shadow, in the background, but their cries announce the arrival of the filmmaker who will tell his country’s origin story. Hou himself was born in April, 1947, weeks after the “228 Incident,” when tens of thousands of Taiwanese natives, bendiren, rose up against the newly arrived Kuomintang and were massacred. The film tracks the fate of a family through this period of unrest. It ends in 1949, the year when the KMT declared the state of martial law that lasted until 1987.

Shot in Jiufen, an old mining city near the port of Keelung, City of Sadness uses long shots and long takes to dwell on the lush hills of the island and its coast. The colors and textures of these images embody the idea of a country, the Republic of China, which was at first a fragile kind of abstraction. Tsai, however, captures something different: the present fragmentation of the island nation by global capital, the kinds of flows that bring me, an American, to Ximen to watch Planet of the Apes. The urban spaces that his films explore suggest a place that is at once more and less specific than a country. On screen, we glide from cramped, dim rooms along ring roads toward, and past, archipelagos of neon.


As in all of Tsai’s films, the narrative of Rebels of the Neon God is slight. The film’s teenage protagonist, Hsiao-kang—played Lee Kang-sheng, who is in all of Tsai’s films—is riding in the passenger seat of the taxi that his father drives for a living when another teen, Ah Tze, crosses his path. We know from the opening sequences that Ah Tze is a high school dropout who lives alone in an abandoned, flooded apartment complex. When Hsiao-kang spots him, he is riding on a scooter, with his sort-of girlfriend, Ah Kuei, wrapped around him. Hsiao-kang’s father has just suggested that they ditch work and studying for the rest of the day and go see a movie at Ximen. Ah Tze is also headed to Ximen, where he and his sidekick Ah Bing spend their days loitering in video game arcades, and their nights stealing from them, and from public telephones, and any stash they can find—and then flirting with girls like Ah Kuei. She works as a roller rink attendant. Tsai’s camera lingers on her body through the windshield for a long time, hinting that Hsiao-kang can’t take his stare off her Daisy Dukes.

When Ah Tze runs into and breaks the right-hand mirror of Hsiao-kang’s father’s taxi, his father becomes furious. Tsai keeps his camera on the shattered glass as the father drives the son home. In it, the cityscape splits and spills into new configurations like the tiles of a kaleidoscope. It’s an emblem of the fragmenting and rejoining work that the film will do, crossing and merging its two narratives from here on in. Hsiao-kang begins stalking the rebels. He drops out of school the next day and heads to Ximen. He finds Ah Tze and Ah Bing in the video arcade. He hides out to watch them rob the place. He follows them around a mall to the restaurants where they get shitfaced before staggering off to collapse and puke on a construction site and sleep it off at an hourly “love hotel.” Hsiao-kang takes a room across the street from it. The film never explains what exactly Hsiao-kang wants from the others, though it seems clear that it has something to do with sexual desire, and something to do with revenge.

In the meantime, it rains. All Tsai films are full of fluids. Characters sweat and wipe their brows and limbs; they urinate on camera; they weep; they fuck and masturbate, working up more sweat; they are infected by the pollution of Taipei’s Tamsui River; the toilets in their homes or workplaces spring leaks; they lug buckets of sloshing water to clean up; the drains clog and reflood their apartments. Again and again, the lash and patter of the rain casts a haze over Tsai’s sound tracks. Rain beads on windows and makes the city lights in the eye of his lens glare. While Tsai uses static camera and long takes to capture the cramped feel of the rooms his characters live in, the sounds of rain and leaking pipes heighten their sense of claustrophobia. Buildings are crumbling. This world is waterlogged.


Critics who love and hate Tsai seem to love or hate him for this insistence upon particular forms and themes—for his rigor or his relentlessness, depending whom you ask. When Stephen Holden reviewed Tsai’s 2013 film Stray Dogs for the New York Times last September, he blasted it. The lede called Stray Dogs a “glum, humorless exercise in Asian miserabilism.” Holden describes a scene in which Hsiao-kang (a much older Lee Kang-sheng), now a father of two, smothers a cabbage with a face painted on it and then devours it, as a point of no return. “Until it goes haywire with the cabbage scene, ‘Stray Dogs’ sustains a hypnotic intensity anchored in cinematography that portrays the modern industrial cityscape as a chilly wasteland,” Holden writes. The cabbage, however, is too much. “It’s hard not to feel a twinge of contempt for his lachrymose self-pity.”

For last week’s New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote an essay on Tsai that was more appreciative. Unlike Holden, Brody admires Tsai’s persistence. “The director,” Brody writes, “fuses a rigorously stylized vision with incisive documentary observation; Tsai is one of the great sardonic observers of urban spaces, with a keen eye for both the alien chill of gleaming towers, and the poetic allure of decrepitude.” Since his 1995 film Vive lAmour, Brody continues, Tsai has created “a personal cinematic mythology.”

Where Holden subtitled his review “A Tale of Urban Alienation,” Brody recognizes that Stray Dogs is something less timeless than “a tale” suggests. This “subtly comprehensive view of modern life… reveals economic inequity and rotting infrastructure behind luxurious facades, and shows physical needs and emotional desires surging through the city’s order.” But Tsai’s “personal cinematic mythology” is even more specific than Brody allows. The urban alienation that Tsai depicts is not just any alienation: it belongs to the Rising Asia of the present, to the kinds of shoddy environments that the city renews too quickly and the typhoon rains erode.

Reviewers often point out how much Tsai has taken from earlier European filmmakers, particularly Antonioni. But the same visual motifs and camera and editing gestures mean something different for Tsai than they did in postwar Europe. André Bazin praised the aesthetics of long take cinema, epitomized by the Italian neorealists, for what he called a “fundamental faith in reality.” For Bazin, the moral and democratic force of long shots and long takes was not only that they confronted film spectator with the world in all its unedited and unnoticed strangeness. They also let him scan the image and focus on what he pleased. Tsai clearly and frankly idealizes the French nouvelle vague filmmakers whom Bazin mentored, Truffaut in particular. In What Time is It There, Hsiao-kang buys a pirated copy of The Four Hundred Blows on VHS and locks himself in his dark bedroom to watch it again and again. Jean-Pierre Léaud, favorite child of Truffaut and his nouvelle vague comrades, even makes a brief cameo.

But already in Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai makes clear that he must adapt the techniques of these old new waves to his time and place. There is a great scene in Rebels of the Neon God when Hsiao-kang pauses in the arcade, where he has been following Ah Tze and Ah Bing, and stares at a poster of James Dean. It’s a black-and-white image of that famous still from Rebel Without a Cause, where Dean leans back against a wall, staring cockily at something off to the right, his signature red jacket half-unzipped, and flicks a cigarette. This is an allusion to the European New Waves as much as it is to Hollywood—to the love that Truffaut and others expressed for Nicholas Ray. The longing gaze that Hsiao-kang casts at James Dean suggests an echo of the ambivalent desire that Tsai’s European heroes once felt for America, and the liberation that it represented. But Dean’s—or Truffaut’s or Godard’s—particular form of macho rebellion isn’t available in Taipei in 1992. The kids who scrape by stealing coins from arcade video games move among a different culture of images. Ah Kuei and Ah Bing are constantly playing a version of the Japanese game Street Fighter II, which I remember playing as a kid in New York in the 1990s. The new gods were digital. And they were already everywhere.


In a way, it is strangely appropriate that Tsai’s first film should have waited twenty-three years to appear in the United States. Tsai is a director obsessed with what the French call décalage, a kind of jet lag. The rhetoric of development used about East Asia—and elsewhere in the “developing” world—presumes a certain kind of linear, progressive time, or movement forward in time. Its voice insists that places like Taipei must catch up. In the context of neoliberal urban planning policies that have pushed cities to “develop” at breakneck speeds, at whatever cost, Tsai’s choice obstinately to arrest time suggests a kind of refusal or resistance.

At the same time, the dilated takes of his films capture the insomniac quality of East Asian cities, whose lights and life have made them harbingers—for Hollywood, at least—of a 24/7 future. In Taipei, there are bookstores and food stalls open all night. The mascot of the ubiquitous 7-11 stores is “Open Chan,” a yellow dog that wears a rainbow helmet and fights his protectionist enemy, the gray dog “Lock Chan,” in order to ensure that customers can shop at all hours. Here is what has changed since Bazin and Cahiers, who could write that the “faith in reality” of long take cinema gave us a kind of freedom. In the environment that Tsai shows us, the eye of the viewer, as consumer, is already free to attend to whatever it likes. Tsai’s films depict a world in which this mobility leaves us less liberated than precarious, vulnerable to the kind of boredom that sets in when trying to scrape together work off the clock.

Rebels of the Neon God returns again and again to the seedy arcades and restaurants that redevelopment would eliminate as it cleaned up Taipei City. It often reveals these places to be abject. Yet Tsai’s gaze, like that of his avatar Hsiao-kang, remains animated by ambivalence. The emptiest, defeated gestures suddenly turn funny—as with Hsiao-kang’s voracious assault on the cabbage in Stray Dogs. A scale can tip quickly from the relentless to the hilarious. Desire may be the best word for the goofy brooding and gorgeous misery of these scenes—desire, like love, being obstinate, a form of insistence on the particular, on things or persons you would not trade up if you could. It shows in how Tsai has continued to use a single actor to play Hsiao-kang through all his incarnations, over the past twenty three years, and continued to cast many of the same ensemble actors in the secondary roles around him. Those of us who are longtime fans have seen ourselves grow older with this strange family. In Rebels of the Neon God, there is something a little breathtaking about seeing them all so young.

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