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Wellspring presents

Rebels of the Neon God (Ch'ing shaonien na cha) (1992)

"Let's get out of this place....."- Ah-Kuei (Wang Yu-Wen)

Stars: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Chao-jung, Wang Yu-Wen
Other Stars: Jen Chang-bin, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:41m:50s
Release Date: 2003-02-04
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Director Tsai Ming-Liang, born in 1957 in Malaysia, has lived and worked in Taiwan since his college days, and his films are regularly nominated and win prizes at international film festivals, include a Palme d'Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival for his latest feature What Time Is It There? In this, his first feature film, all of the interests and stylistic tics that would inform his later works are present, some fully developed, others in tentative and inchoate form.

The film begins with intercut sequences of Hsaio-kang, a sad-faced, disaffected youth, subject to bizarre fits and outbursts of violence, who is preparing for his college entrance exams, and Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, two juvenile thieves, who break in to pay phones, only to spend their new-found wealth in video game arcades. After several chance encounters, Hsaio-kang becomes obsessed with Ah-Tse, following and spying on him, as Ah-Tse begins a tentative relationship with Ah-Keui, a young woman who works in a roller rink. In a fit of rage, Hsaio-kang trashes Ah-Tse's motorcycle, only to dance in insane glee when Ah-Tse discovers the damage. Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping try to sell the video game circuit boards that they have recently stolen, but the potential buyers chase the two youths and beat up Ah-Ping (characteristic of Ming-Liang's style, we only see the aftermath of the beating). Ah-Tse takes the bruised and bloodied Ah-Ping back to his flooded apartment. It is only a matter of time until Ah-Kuei shows up, suggesting forlornly on the doorstep "Let's get out of this place," to which Ah-Ping desultorily replies "Where do you want to go?", implying that there is in fact no place to go, and no escape.

While it is easy to summarize the plot of the film in a few paragraphs, the experience of watching the film is in no way so neat and tidy. Shots and sequences display characters in their environment, at first on their own, and eventually interacting with one another, but exposition here is non-existent—it is only gradually, through the extremely naturalistic dialogue, that one learns the relationships between the characters (in fact, the name of one of the protagonists is only revealed in the last third of the film). This part of the film is dominated not by plot and incident, but rather by long sequences that privilege mood and atmosphere.

And that mood and atmosphere is not especially pleasant. Perhaps informed by the contrast between his rural upbringing in Malaysia and his university education in Taipei, Ming-Liang here depicts an oppressive urban milieu. Shots of buildings so jam-packed with advertising signs that their facades are barely visible, alternate with other shots depicting sideways so chockablock with parked motorcycles that even the possibility of using them for escape is visually mocked. The only potential escape from this oppression, an interior refuge in the comfort and stability of the workplace or home, is even worse. Both living quarters and work environments are cramped, dirty, dimly-lit, and oppressive. Significantly, even in one of the few lyrical and visually beautiful shots of the film—of objects floating across of water—Ming-Liang, instead of showing a clichéd "toy sailboats floating across a pond" shot that a lesser visual stylist might resort to, instead displays empty cans and tennis shoes — the detritus of Ah-Tse's life — floating in the several inches of water on the floor of his flooded apartment.

One reading of the film is that the characters' rootlessness and anomie are nothing more than the result of their crushing urban environment, and indeed, other reviewers have claimed that this is the case. But that is too easy. There is no simple cause-and-effect evident in the film, no claims made that these characters would be, or act differently, in any other circumstances. They are simply people playing out their lives against a backdrop.

With such a brilliant depiction of atmosphere and environment, one would expect an equally skilled narrative—and this is precisely where the film falls flat on its face. Through the first half or so, the naturalness of visual elements and dialogue are matched by the seeming verisimilitude of the plot, but towards the end, coincidence piles upon coincidence. In the end, the clumsiness of the scenario overwhelms the near-documentary emphasis on environment and naturalness, and renders the film inconsistent and flawed. It is only in such later films as Vive l'amour and The Hole that Ming-Liang would find a narrative style that would match the brilliance of his visuals.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: While it is commendable that a small company such as Wellspring saw fit to provide an anamorphically-enhanced image, the transfer still disappoints. Much of the film tends towards darkness and shadow, and unfortunately, in this transfer, much of the detail is lost in murk. Even in well-lit scenes, the color balance seems off, with unnatural skin tones (although this may be a feature of the film itself, rather than an error in the transfer). The source print is mostly clean, with occasional speckles and frame jumps, but not enough to be annoying. Edge enhancement is present, but not excessive. There is one horrendous encoding error at 6m:13s into the film that causes not only a breakup in the image, but also a loud burst of static on the soundtrack.

Image Transfer Grade: C

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Mandarinyes

Audio Transfer Review: For the most part, the 2.0 sound is adequate, although there are occasional loud pops on the soundtrack. However, there is one major flaw that seriously compromised this reviewer's ability to enjoy and appreciate the film—there is a repeated clicking sound, about every 3/4 of a second. It is not especially loud, but whenever there is quiet scene, it once again rears its ugly head, and it is incredibly distracting. This is a major flaw in the DVD, and Wellspring should have corrected this problem before releasing it.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in No with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Flowers of Shanghai, The River, What Time Is It There?, Yi Yi
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD Production Credits (easter egg)
Extras Review: Kudos to Wellspring for the subtitles, which are in yellow and thus easy to read, not only against dark backgrounds, but the occasional well-lit scene. Not only the dialogue, but also the meaning of the frequent signs adorning shops and other buildings, is translated. In a film where location and environment play a major role, this shows an unusual (and welcome) sensitivity on Wellspring's part.

The other extras consist of nothing more than four trailers, three of them for Winstar and Wellspring home video releases.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

An extremely visual and stylish film, brilliant in its depiction of urban Taipei, is in the end let down by its uninteresting characters and unbelievable plot clichés.

Robert Edwards 2003-06-19