TV screens, arcade game screens, mirrors, windows – all of these offer reflective surfaces, some more and some less reflective, some promising immersion into another sort of state, some seeming to immerse but offering very little in the way of escape from lonely self and quotidian present. These surfaces are everywhere in Tsai Ming-Liang’s newly restored and re-released feature debut of 1992, Rebels of the Neon God, a quietly absorbing film that suggests a set of startlingly germane meditations on the modern self, a thing that is simultaneously isolated and connected, revealed and covert.
The story centers around the lives of two people: one, a 20-something young man, Ah Tze, living by petty theft and residing in a lonely, constantly flooded apartment, and one, a teenaged boy, Hsiao-Kang, chafing at his bondage in cram school and living at home in uncommunicative silence with his anxiously watchful parents. Both Ah Tze and Hsiao-Kang, though they have companions who surround them – a parent or a brother, a friend or a girlfriend – and though they pass through the teeming city of Taipei, stand as alienated figures, whose selves ricochet in the mirroring surfaces surrounding them.
TV screens and game screens physically keep the characters from facing the lives of one another but the screens also, in some sense, reflect and reveal their individual and collective lives and desires: Hsiao-Kang’s mother faces her TV screen, her back to her son – then, she turns to look at him as if willing him to speak to her, he says nothing, she turns back to her screen, watching images of life played out in electric light. Game screens absorb Ah Tze and his friend, Ah Bing – side by side, facing their screens – they play games of journeys that parallel their own movements in the city, speeding as they do on separate scooters and returning over and over to their regular haunts. Pornographic images run across the TV screen in Ah Tze’s bedroom, in a sort of mocking mimic of Ah Tze’s own sexual encounter, the mirroring televised images of the actors questioning the depth of any spiritual or emotional connection of the real physical bodies in the room.
Tsai makes physical bodies, as they are both revealed and queried in reflective surfaces, also mirror one another. In one sequence, Ah Tze and Hsiao- Kang are so fully mirrored, their bodies are nearly indistinguishable: bare chested Ah Tze splashes his face with water; hands are removed and the face of a bare chested Hsaio-Kang has taken Ah Tze’s place in the lens. As each moves about his separate room in separate buildings, the camera shifts from one to the other, essentially fusing their bodies and actions. When the focus is upon one hand or one limb or one waist, it is unclear to whom the body part belongs. The images connect the two bodies, but in the connection we are also reminded of their separation; they do not know one another, even though Hsaio-Kang eventually becomes obsessed with the figure of Ah Tze, as he encounters him in the city, watching him and repeating and following Ah Tze’s actions – as Ah Tze eats, plays games, hides from store guards. The two are connected by Hsiao-Kang’s voyeurism, but like a mirror, as it reflects one person but also offers two separate, always disconnected selves – one a mere image, one a body – the two young men do not ever truly connect, even when Hsaio-Kang pushes past mere voyeurism and forces an exchange of words.
For all the mirroring, mock connective surfaces of the film, one potentially reflective surface does not behave as the electric screens or as the mirrors of the story. Water periodically drenches the city and our characters, transforming their physical state. Water that floods Ah Tze’s apartment, fills the floor, spills out into the hallway and shared bathroom, and sends personal items on little floating journeys. The water of the apartment permeates; it gurgles up from the drain, unmanageable and dirty, but then also casts lovely shimmering reflections of light against the ceiling and walls, contrasting with the neon lights of the city and the buzzing electricity of the screens. Water touches them all and cannot be controlled by any of them. It is, perhaps, something of the earth and sky and something for the body and flesh – a thing that, however contaminated by city drains, never loses a certain transformative power, particularly in the way it forces its way into a city building or onto the characters’ bodies, making the bodies vulnerable.
The body vulnerable – fully acknowledged as a physical thing, not something on the screen or reflected in the screen, something that shivers in water and breaks under violent fists of flesh and bone – is perhaps what offers some promise of real connection. While one character sits under cold electric lights – staring at a ringing phone at the Dial-a-Date center, not daring to answer and communicate with the voice on the other end – another character, bloodied by fists and feet, finds himself cradled in and lifted by the arms of his friend and then warmly hugged by other compassionate arms. And such compassion spurs other emotions, and two figures, clutch one another, feet submerged in flood water, as reflected light dances around them. It is something that seems like a connection, a merging of physical and emotional.
The question remains, as the film ends – with its repeated musical theme, a haunting, pulsing baseline which recalls the repetitions of synth-y video game scores – whether such connections can be maintained in a brightly reflective neon world, where images of the self swirl and bounce, disembodied.
Rebels of the Neon God opens Friday, July 17th at the SIFF Film Center.