Rebels of the Neon God (1992) as a seminal Asian Second Wave Film

In a post a while back I discussed a film movement from the 1960s that is commonly referred as The French New Wave. Today I want to discuss a more recent group of films and directors that are sometimes characterized as forming an Asian Second New Wave. Ming-liang Tsai is a film director associated with this movement, and last month the Tacoma Film Club screened one of his early films, Rebels of the Neon God (1992). This low budget film has some rough edges, and is perhaps not the best place to start for a film viewer who is unfamiliar with this genre. (I would recommend starting first with one of his more mature, and polished, works. I provide a list of some recommended Asian Second New Wave films at the end of this posting). Nevertheless, Rebels of the Neon God is a seminal film with several qualities that signify features of the emerging Asian Second New Wave Movement.

Japenese director Yasujirō Ozu lived too early to be considered part of this second new wave, but was one one of its pioneering influences. His film making career extended from the 1920s into the 1960s. But it was his post-WWII films starting with Late Spring (1949), and including his masterpiece Tokio Story (1953), often referred to collectively as “Late Ozu films”, that were most influential. One of his influences was thematic. His films were not designed to tell a narrative story so much as to express an inter-generational social structure of alienation. The pre-WWII values of the older generation, based on traditional influences such as religion (Shinto and Buddhism), respect for elders, and adoration and loyalty to an emperor, were missing in an increasingly Westernized younger generation, and Ozu’s films explore the shattered social structure emanating from this change. A second influence was Ozu’s adoption of a distinctive camera style. This was also one of the hallmark’s of the French New Wave directors, but whereas they all tended to gravitate towards a fluid camera movement style, Ozu went the opposite direction and perfected use of a fixed camera, positioned low to the ground. A third influence coming from Ozu was making the urban setting part of the narrative. Anyone who has watched a number of Late Ozu films will have memories of images that include commuter train tracks viewed from the waiting platform and a jumble of power and telephone lines zigzagging overhead. The inter-cutting of these bleak urban landscape scenes with scenes in which the characters talk and interact creates a strong emotional feeling of sentimentality, nostalgia, and sadness – a feeling that something of value has been lost never to return. And this is all achieved, not through dialog, but through camera placement, framing, and editing.

These Ozo influences are evident to a greater or lessor extent in many of the Asian Second New Wave genre films, and can be seen in rudimentary form in Rebels of the Neon God. Ming-liang Tsai follows in the tradition of Ozu by making the urban environment essentially a character in the story. The Neon Gods of the title play a prominent role in the film as do the ding-dong-ding-dong bells of the video game parlors, and Ozu’s bleak images of train tracks and overhead telephone lines are replaced by endless loops around roller rinks and city thoroughfares and by water oozing up into apartments from clogged drains.

Also similar to Ozu, the main point of Rebels of the Neon God is not its, fairly simple, narrative story. Rather, the film is a vivid portrayal of youthful alienation from mainstream society in modern day Tai Pei, Taiwan. If I were to try to characterize “what this film is about” I would not try to describe the events portrayed in the film along the lines of, first this happened and then that happened and so on. Instead, I would describe the plea made by one of the central characters, a young woman, to her boyfriend near the end of the film, “Lets get out of this place”, and how we viewers of the film on hearing that plea understand that it will probably never happen, and also that most likely she, at least at some level of awareness, knows that too.

The very distinctive camera and editing style that Ming-liang Tsai will develop in his later films in which the narrative develops dynamically primarily from a series of carefully framed, fixed-camera shots, with abrupt jumps from one scene to the next, rather than from camera movement within a scene is only beginning to emerge in Rebels of the Neon God. However, even in this early film, the story is told through a succession of discrete short scenes abutted together, with few transitions to aid the viewer in following the shifts in characters and locations from scene to scene.

This can feel very disjointed to mainstream film viewers not accustomed to use of this technical method to construct a film narrative. But for those willing to take the time to learn and appreciate the language, films constructed using this grammar can provide an exhilarating experience.

  Consider the differences between mainstream narrative novels and experimental prose poetry. A reader who wants to simply get carried along with a narrative story created by a string of sentences along the lines, first this happened and then this happened, can gain much pleasure and satisfaction by restricting their reading to Best Seller novels. However for the more adventurous who are willing to work a little harder, other types of literature constructed with various kinds of poetry can provide rich and rewarding experiences of a different kind. An analogous distinction can be made between the types of experiences provided by mainstream films and by films made by directors who are working to create new forms of poetic film grammars; And these would include many films made by the Asian Second New Wave directors.

For viewers interested in sampling some of the films made by directors associated with the Asian Second New Wave, here are a few I would recommend. These directors have many different styles and use many different methods to construct their films, but all have in common that they appear to be trying to break out of the confines of traditional Hollywood mainstream films, and exploring new ways of creating films.

Ming-liang Tsai (Malaysia and Taiwan)

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

Goodby Dragon Inn (2003)

What Time is it There (2001)

Joon-ho Bong (South Korea)

The Host (2006)

Mother (2009)

Chang-dong Lee (South Korea)

Poetry (2010)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)

Tropical Malady (2004)

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Kar-Wai Wong (Hong Kong)

Chungking Express (1994)

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Sang-soo Hong (South Korea)

The Day He Arrives (2011)

This is not meant to be a comprehensive, or even a representative list of Asian Second New Wave Films; Just a selection of some I have watched that I found personally interesting and would recommend to anyone interested in sampling a few films from this genre.

Ron Boothe

May 5, 2013


4 thoughts on “Rebels of the Neon God (1992) as a seminal Asian Second Wave Film

  1. I enjoyed watching Rebels of the Neon God. I added some of the films you suggested to my Netflix que.

  2. I see in today’s New York Times that Rebels of the Neon God is finally getting released in USA theaters. Hopefully, it will come to The Grand so we can all see it on a big screen. One of my biggest disappointments of TFC screenings in recent years was the poor quality of the DVD projection on the night we viewed it. This is a film that needs to be seen in all its glorious color and sound to be fully appreciated.

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