While two petty hoods (Chen Chao-jung and Jen Chang-bin) cram inside a phone booth to drill through the collection box, student Lee Kang-sheng vegetates at home, impales cockroaches with a compass, and pushes his hand through the window pane. "You have nothing better to do with yourself," his parents ask. The question is rung just before the opening credits in Tsai Ming-liang's feature debut, yet the film's evocation of a country's spiritual malaise extends from the adolescent protagonists to the older generation -- the mom's (Lu Hsiao-ling) belief that Lee might be the reincarnation of a god may signal tenuous links to mythological roots, but ultimately it is as bankrupt a palliative as the sound and fury of the video game parlors and skating rink the boys prowl through. The spirit of James Dean presides from an arcade poster, though Lee's shy slacker hems closer to Sal Mineo's Plato, down to a clouded gayness -- he drops out of school and pockets the enrollment money, all the better to follow Chen around Taipei and wreck the hood's bike ("AIDS" spray-painted on the side) as he gets down with equally rootless hottie Yu-Wen Wang in a motel. It's typical of the movie's web of aching disconnection that paths are constantly crisscrossing yet the characters remain strangers to each another and themselves, moments between disenchanted mallrats or a clueless misfit and his cabby dad (Tien Miao) rendered with the same sensitivity to their fragility. Water is already Tsai's tenacious motif, from the outpourings to Chen's losing standoff with an overflowing drain, but this is a harsher, bleaker, more earthbound portrait than the director's subsequent works -- shorn of Tsai's surreptitious drollness and regenerative lyricism, the film shifts Taiwan's wobbly identity from the pastorals of Hou Hsiao-hsien to glittering urban cages, where the ephemeral pleasures of a false neon god only paper the cultural cracks in a nation's soul.
--- Fernando F. Croce