‘Rebels of the Neon God’
Tsai Ming-liang
Stars: Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

The legendary Taiwanese minimalist filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang didn’t emerge fully formed, but with 1992’s “Rebels of the Neon God” he came close. That’s remarkable as is. Over the years and the films — including 1998’s “The Hole,” 2000’s “What Times is it There?” and last year’s “Stray Dogs” — he’s established one of the most recognizable voices in cinema. He does the long take master shot thing, where still images hold for minutes at a time while people do relatively mundane activities. But he mixes in elements like musical numbers, or revisits the same ideas, often with the same actors. No one’s doing exactly what Tsai does, even if he’s been doing variations on it for nearly 25 years.

Not all of that is in “Rebels,” but a fair amount of it is. Among the elements there from the start is his most frequent collaborator, actor Lee Kang-sheng. He plays Hsiao-Kanga the quiet, vaguely befuddled loner who’d appear in six more Tsai films. (Even when playing another character, Lee tends to rock the same Buster Keatonish stone face.) As in 1997’s “The River,” Hsiao-Kang lives with his parents, played, as they would soon repeatedly be, by Miao Tien and Lu Yi-Ching. The focus swings between Hsiao-Kang’s misadventures and those of a pair of young, hipster thieves, Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Jen Chang-bin). Their paths eventually cross, with disastrous/funny results, but the budding Tsai is mostly interested in finding the right mix between long take tableaux and some broad hook, like the vision of a mega-drought that takes up the porny 2005 salvo “The Wayward Cloud.”

The balance isn’t quite there, and Tsai’s shots have yet to turn into epics. But his observational skills are more than larval. His cameras like to hang out in cluttered, sometimes overpopulated tight spaces, like an arcade that Hsiao-Kang frequents. Tsai was still young enough that he felt compelled to slap a poster of James Dean circa “Rebel Without a Cause” in major parts of his frames, to show where his allegiances lie. Soon he wouldn’t feel compelled to show any of his influence — to take himself, and his previous work, as the main things driving him forward. 

Tsai would soon abandon the plotting that becomes more significant as “Rebels” putts along, but he’d keep nearly everything else. Water, one of Tsai’s favorite motifs, is already present, via a dilapidated apartment that, for reasons never explicitly made clear, is perpetually coated in a thin layer of the stuff. And even when Hsiao-Kang seeks revenge on his two co-stars, it builds to first a ridiculous act of vandalism then an unexpected tonal shift that predicts the crying jag that closes out his next picture, “Vive L’Amour.” Watching “Rebels of the Neon God” is more than just watching an early film by an untouchable master; it allows you to see his style with newly fresh eyes.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge