Review: Teen troubles timeless in ‘Rebels’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Alienation. Longing. Resentment. Ambition. Rebellion. Love.

These are elements that transcend time and geography as evidenced by the magnificently titled “Rebels of the Neon God.” Made in Taiwan in 1992 but just now being released in the U.S. its themes harken back to 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” while also feeling completely contemporary.

The first film from director Ming-liang Tsai, “Rebels” takes place on the seemingly constantly drenched streets of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Initially we’re introduced to Ah-tze (Chao-jung Chen) and his partner Ah-ping (Jen Chang-bin), a couple of young hustlers who make their money by breaking open pay phones and bagging the coins therein.

Ah-tze lives in an apartment where water is constantly coming up from a drain in the kitchen floor; he sloshes his way from the front door to his bedroom. His roommate is an unseen older brother who one night brings home a girl who works at the local roller rink, Ah-kuei (Yu-Wen Wang). Eventually the thieves start hanging out with the flighty and flirty girl.

At the same time the camera follows Hsiao Kang (the moody Kang-sheng Lee), a student who has dropped out of the rigid tutoring courses his cab driver father has paid for while pocketing the courses’ refund money. Lonely and guilty about his failure, he secretly targets the young thieves when they get in an altercation with his father.

All these characters find refuge in video game emporiums where countless disaffected young men stare into rows of monitors, blasting away at aliens and attackers, dropping coins into the machines to keep themselves distracted. The city outside seems both hyperactive and vaguely dangerous and all our young heroes seem disillusioned and somewhat hopeless. Sure, they could go someplace else, but where really is there to go?

So “Rebels of the Neon God” is a movie of troubled youth, a somewhat timeless genre (the young are always troubled; so are the not-so-young, but they’re less innocent). But its dark mood, specific setting and juxtaposition of characters keep things both unsettled and unique. We’ve seen these kids before, but we’ve never seen them quite like this.

‘Rebels of the Neon God’


Not rated

Running time: 106 minutes

Detroit Film Theatre