This review of Rebels of the Neon God, the 1992 hyphenate debut of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, can be summarized in three simple statements:
- It made me think about why I write film criticism.
- It made me want to write a review about why I write film criticism.
- You, the reader, are probably best served by a review that is largely meta-analytical in nature.
Which should, I think, be more than enough information for you to decide whether it is worth expending the precious, finite, non-refundable time we are all allotted in this vast and mysterious world on both reading the remainder of this review and seeing the film in question. If all that has left you just plain scratching your head, go see Minions.
The arrival of Rebels of the Neon God in American theaters, for the first time ever despite being as old as “Baby Got Back,” is an event designed to elicit a very specific response from America’s film critics, and elicit that response it has; praise, mostly, wrapped in long appreciations of the career of its creator, a career which may have just concluded. Tsai Ming-liang, you see, is an extremely well-respected auteur filmmaker, an independent visionary, a tragicomedic poet of urban alienation and human desire. You can Google and Metacritic and whatever all the other reviews of this movie, which proxy for reviews of his whole career and also opportunities for other critics to demonstrate their savvy knowledge of, and insight into, the films of this great and underappreciated artiste, in terms that at times seem designed to lord over a certain superiority. “Rebels of the Neon God makes one yearn for an alternative reality where it, not Pulp Fiction, became the beacon of ’90s independent filmmaking,” says one review, distinct only in the desire of its author to make plain to you that, actually, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is totally not even Neutral Milk Hotel’s best record, and the real best record of the ‘90s is from obscure band and you probably haven’t even heard of them.
Your mileage may vary. This is the part where I should tell you about what watching Rebels of the Neon God is like, but, to be honest, I’m not sure I feel qualified, because until I was assigned this movie to review I hadn’t ever seen any of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. I’m not even certain I’d even heard of Tsai Ming-liang, though one or two of the titles of his films ring a bell. And lest my cinema elitist credentials be insufficiently established, I got my bachelor’s degree in Film & Television Studies. My favorite movies probably aren’t movies you’ve ever heard of, and if you’re reading this review you are probably more of a cinema elitist than 90% of the moviegoing population.
The other reviews out there of Rebels of the Neon God make sure to place it resolutely in the context of Tsai Ming-liang’s other films, which seems to make a lot of sense, since they all seem to star the same cast playing the same characters in the same city with running themes and symbols. It certainly feels, well, kind of lacking to evaluate a 23-year-old Taiwanese movie with neither the benefit of hindsight or contemporaneousness. Which leads me to wonder why I’m even writing this review, and why you’re reading it, and Ouroboros consumes its own tail.
I mean, I know why I’m writing movie reviews: I’m doing it because I enjoy it and because BYT needs your clicks. But, like, presumably I’m offering you some kind of service? In the olden days there were basically two kinds of movie reviews. The first kind came in your local news-on-paper, which is a form of manual, difficult-to-scale content aggregation that you should ask your parents about if you want to be amazed at how barbaric the world was until surprisingly recently, and told you whether you should see movie A or movie B this Friday when you saw your weekly movie. Then you deleted the content by putting it in the garbage, and basically deleted it forever. The other kind were elitist essays written in specialty publications for people in New York and Los Angeles.
Now with the internet all reviews are both types, as well as a million types, but really only one? Am I writing this to help you decide whether to see Rebels of the Neon God this weekend? Or have you already decided, and need to know how to contextualize it, how to feel about it, a jumping-off-point for thinking about it? Is it going to be something that people read one year, five years, fifty years from now when querying the vast interconnected knowledge network as to what content to stream? If a critic has no practical power to influence people’s choices, does it make a sound? Are these the questions that only a white male urban #millennial who feels way too insecure about their own record as a publisher of publically-accessible opinions could possibly care about?
These are questions about criticism, like questions about Rebels of the Neon God, that I feel wholly unqualified to answer, and awkward even positing. Re: the latter, at least, I feel comfortable saying that the very uniformity of takes leaves me at least a little suspicious; nobody wants to be the person out there saying “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” when the rest of the critical profession is simultaneously sculpting the filmmaker in marble and gold and building ever-narrower circles of elitism. It may or may not be failing a test, but it certainly feels like failing a test, and in that way is a testament to the way that the social economy of the Internet can, just as easily as it unleashes a thousand perspectives, emergently enforce a surprising nervous unanimity. The actual film, Rebels of the Neon God, a quiet, contemplative story of youths and landscape, felt so smothered by context and the absence of context that I’m not even sure that after all that I actually, you know, saw a movie. Anyway, dear reader, all I will say, in the end, about Rebels of the Neon God is this – if you weren’t planning on spending $11 to see it, in a movie theater, before reading this review, you probably shouldn’t.
But TBH maybe don’t see Minions, either.