Don't let the occasional camera movement fool you: The Taiwanese "Rebels of the Neon God" is a Tsai Ming-liang film, the static-take-loving auteur's debut, receiving a U.S. theatrical release after 23 years.
The film is a clinical, cool-suspicious dissection of disaffected youth maneuvering Taipei's grimier, noisier corners. It will strike fans of the director's disciplined, enigmatic classics "What Time Is It There?" and "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" as both accessible outlier and charged testing ground.
Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng plays Hsiao-keng, a blank, distracted college student increasingly obsessed with the motorcycle-riding thief Ah-Tze (Chen Chao-jung). As their parallel lives intertwine in a plot that mixes surveillance, vengeance, street crime and casual sex, Tsai unfurls a now-signature backdrop of cramped urban blight: dingy living spaces, video arcades, wet weather and motel rooms. (There's even a sonorous bass-thump theme to drive home the dirge of it all.)
As a first film, it is incredibly accomplished, its influences (French New Wave, Wong Kar-Wai) apparent but integrated. Most telling, though, is that when Tsai uses a camera pan or tracking shot, it feels hesitant, obligatory. But when he locks it down to bask in the alienation, cut after cut, you can see a director falling in love with the poetics of minimalism.
"Rebels of the Neon God."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Playing: at the NuArt.