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Chen Chao-jung and Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s 1992 feature debut, “Rebels of the Neon God.”
Chen Chao-jung and Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s 1992 feature debut, “Rebels of the Neon God.”BIG WORLD PICTURES/Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Those challenged by the slow pace and perverse narrative of Tsai Ming-liang’s most recent film, 2013’s “Stray Dogs” (at the risk of spoilers, the last 15 minutes consist of two people staring at a mural on the wall of a derelict building), might want to start with his more conventional 1992 feature debut, “Rebels of the Neon God.” The film is finally being released here theatrically, in a new high-definition restoration.

An elliptical tale of disaffected youth and anomic criminality like those made around the same time by other Taiwanese filmmakers such as Edward Yang (1991’s “A Brighter Summer Day”) and Hong Kong directors such as Wong Kar Wai (1990’s “Days of Being Wild”), Tsai’s film, as the title suggests, mostly draws on the ur-text of teenage ennui, Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). A poster of James Dean in a video arcade underscores the obvious. Despite the self-conscious derivativeness and allusions, Tsai’s debut already demonstrates the contrariness and motifs that have distinguished him as a unique, difficult, and transcendent filmmaker.

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Plumbing, for instance, figures high among his obsessions; he has an eye for the poetic squalor of flyspecked public lavatories and kitchen floor drains clogged with detritus and dead cockroaches. The latter problem plagues the apartment of petty thief and would-be hipster Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung); with resignation he slogs through the inch or so of foul water that perpetually floods the place. Nonetheless, he affects the languid, chain-smoking pose of a man of the world — though his love life seems limited to listening to his older brother in the next room getting it on with Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen). When Ah-kuei asks Ah-tze for a lift home (she has a habit of waking up in a strange bed and asking “Where am I?”), he tells her to climb on his Yamaha. Perhaps to show off to the girl, Ah-tze smashes the mirror of a taxi cab.

As destiny and Tsai’s diabolical narrative would have it, school dropout Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is in the cab, which is driven by his father (Tien Miao). Mesmerized by Ah-tze, Hsiao-kang stalks him and his sidekick Ah-ping (Jen Chang-ben). A nerdy outcast on a motor scooter, Hsiao-kang is a possibly malignant version of Sal Mineo’s Plato in Ray’s film.

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A soothsayer has told Hsiao-kang’s mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) that her son is an incarnation of Nezha, a willful, divine child — the Neon God of the title. Perhaps a merging of Taoist philosophy and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” the Neon God seems to be a role adopted by Tsai himself, who shows us the words of the prophet written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.