At the end of Tsai Ming-liang’s modestly confident 1992 debut, seen from arm’s length and from above, a clutch of sad little phone-dating cubicles looks like something out of Jacques Tati. Except instead of a mod Parisian arena for coy clowning, this is the dead end of pre-millennial Taipei malaise. Tsai isn’t without mischief — one key to this film’s hypnotic power is humor so subtle it’s practically subliminal — but his preferred takeaway is the pathos, the still-universal frustration, of an unanswered ringtone.
Also like any given Tati film, Tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God is distinctly of its time but not dated: The rituals of this era’s disaffected youth, set to hooky synth-bass riffs, include drilling into public pay phones and then blowing the stolen loot on arcade video games. (It’s a nice touch that one of the games is played by punching something as hard as you can.) Or, as modeled by the young Lee Kang-sheng, who would become Tsai’s leading man of choice, responding to moments of emotional confusion with peculiar spontaneous dancing.
Listlessness abounds in an atmosphere of sodden fluorescence, with even the most built-up environments apparently defenseless against water pouring from the sky or oozing from the ground, but Tsai never seems pompous. Rebels of the Neon God inaugurates the filmmaker’s multi-movie study of urban alienation not with showoff chops but quiet, enduring compassion. Premiering here at last in a new HD restoration, and as part of a simultaneous Tsai retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, it’s a welcome reintroduction to a modern master’s work.