Tsai Ming-liang on youthful 'Rebels of the Neon God,' finally in theaters

Q&A with Tsai Ming-liang, director of groundbreaking 'Rebels of the Neon God'

The evocation of mystery and glamour in the title “Rebels of the Neon God” alone should be enough to stir interest. Yet the 1992 debut feature by Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, while popping up on the festival and repertory circuit over the years, has never had a proper U.S. theatrical release. Until now.

Currently playing in a weeklong run at the Nuart in West Los Angeles, the film lays the groundwork for much of what would be to come from Tsai, who would win prizes at major festivals with subsequent films “Vive L’Amour,” “The River” and “The Hole.” His films “What Time Is It There?” and “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” would also be highly regarded for their moody, romantic evocations of urban loneliness.

In “Rebels,” a college student (Lee Kang-sheng, who would go on to appear in all of Tsai’s films) becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his own life while growing obsessed with a petty criminal he sees zooming about Taipei on a motorcycle. The lives of these seemingly disconnected strangers become increasingly intertwined.

As New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently put it, "'Rebels of the Neon God' marks the start of one of modern cinema’s great careers."

Tsai recently answered a few translated questions via email.

Are you happy to finally have “Rebels of the Neon God” in front of a wider audience in the U.S.?

Due to the industrialization of the cinema, generally speaking creators ultimately only own the “metaphysical copyright” and can rarely actively control the destiny of their works.

What I have already sensed is not that there is a bigger American audience, but that there are actually audiences of younger generations from everywhere who have noticed my movies, and fall in love with them, which does please me very much.

Have your feelings about the film changed over the years? Does anything about it strike you differently now than it did then?

Every actor in the film was so young, and so was the director outside the film. It is impossible for me to shoot a film like this ever again. Every defect of this film is so precious. The only thing I remember is the world premiere of my debut was at the Fassbinder theater at the Berlin International Film Festival. It won an ovation, and I felt as if I was winning instant success. At the time, I told myself secretly, “Ten times, simply give me such a moment 10 times.” Later, I did shoot 10 films in total.

Do you see the film as a movie about young people or a movie that you made when you were young? If you were to approach the same story now, would you tell it in a different way?

Yes, it was made when I was young. If I were to shoot a story about youth now, who would possibly stand that? I don’t even know how to use Facebook. Everyone has his own limit, doesn’t he?

In relation to your more recent work such as “Stray Dogs,” the storytelling in “Rebels” is more conventional. Can you see the seeds of your recent filmmaking in “Rebels,” and what made you turn away from conventional narrative storytelling?

Why do we always assume that shooting a film is to tell a story? “Rebels of the Neon God” apparently is not about telling a story. Even now, I still don’t think it is conventional. My works have always been about expressing life experiences and sensations. In terms of the format, I am not passionate about “storytelling,” but rather I approach movies more in the prosaic or poetic way. “Rebels of the Neon God” has been just like this. When I was shooting a film, I would constantly remind myself that “I am shooting a film, but not telling a story.” With this approach, I have been freer.

Would you have imagined at the time that you would continue to work with Lee Kang-sheng for all these years? What is it that keeps drawing you back to working with him?

At first, someone came up to whisper in my ear and asked me to promote another male leading actor, and said it is unlikely for Kang [Lee Kang-sheng] to hit stardom, but I didn’t really take his advice. It turned out that this male leading actor started to act on TV shows, and became super famous, but Kang, instead, fell very ill, which made his neck crooked for some reason.

I suspected that when he was shooting for “Rebels of the Neon God,” he might have offended some gods, so I decided to accompany him to look for a treatment, and pray to gods, which took 10 months. Witnessing him overcoming the sickness struck me deeply, which later made me decide to shoot a film about treatment, “The River.” I believe it is the fate that has bound us tightly together with movies.

At a talk in Korea after the screening of “What Time Is It There?” which is my fifth collaboration with Lee Kang-sheng, one audience member asked, “When will you shoot Andy Lau? We are already tired of seeing Lee Kang-sheng.” I was very shocked at the time. How many movies has Andy Lau made? And how many movies has Lee Kang-sheng made? I fought back right away, “I know your idol is Andy Lau, but I am sorry, mine is Lee Kang-sheng.” There was even one Taiwanese film critic who once complained to me that he has lost his feeling for Lee Kang-sheng’s behind, and asked me to shoot some new ones. I told him, “That’s why Lee Kang-sheng’s behind is the only one that counts.” I don’t know why, but I just can’t move my camera away from him, not just the behind, but also his face.

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