This essay integrates feminist scholarship on silent serials with discourses on memory and diaspora to situate historical inquiry, textual interpretation, and construction of subjectivity at the intersection of viewing and writing. It chronicles the author’s experience watching Louis Feuillade’s 1919 serial Tih-Minh, whose half Vietnamese titular character is brought to France and undergoes multiple cycles of kidnapping, amnesia, and memory restoration. This instability of inscription—through Tih-Minh’s memory—is mirrored in the physical degradation of the serial, the unruly distribution of its intertitles and inserts, and subsequent acts of retroactive restoration by historians and conservators. Drawing on historiographic methods that incorporate indeterminacy and lacunae, the instability of inscription is serialized in a process that makes visible, sensible, and poetic the textures of loss and remembrance that connect the serial’s text and preservation with memory in the Vietnamese diaspora, constructing a spectral ecology of suppressed and ephemeral archives.

Tih-Minh (1919), a silent serial directed by Louis Feuillade, has fallen under the spell of repetitive amnesia and dreamlike haunting—a spell suggested by the plot itself.1 The title character is a half Vietnamese woman who is brought to the south of France by her fiancé, Jacques d’Athys, and subsequently taken hostage in exchange for a mysterious document loosely connected to a future European war. Kidnapped, made amnesiac, rescued, restored, and reeducated several times over the course of the serial, Tih-Minh is effectively passed back and forth between her new bourgeois French family and a trio of foreign agents composed of, as the intertitles describe, the Marquise Dolores, who “some say [is] Cuban, others Andalusian,” her “Hindu servant,” and a German doctor. This cyclic repetition of kidnapping, retrieval, and restoration occurs through intrusions in and out of neighboring (at times indistinguishable) estates, and chase scenes across the French Riviera.

I was originally attracted to the serial simply because of the presence of Tih-Minh, whom I found anomalous in the silent film era in particular and the history of film in general. I cannot recall another film about a half Vietnamese woman that is not a documentary about Amerasian children of US soldiers born during the Vietnam War. I am also half Vietnamese, and both Thi (which Tih-Minh notably misspells) and Minh are common names in my family, whose surnames were switched from first to last upon arrival to the United States in 1975. I cannot help but speculate that “Minh Thi” was reconfigured to “Tih-Minh” upon fictional arrival to France in 1918, though I cannot know for sure. The little biography available of Tih-Minh through extant intertitles mostly serves to advance a story that ultimately concerns an inter-European conflict bearing shades of World War I. Similarly, through the degradation of celluloid, processes of data conversion, unruly archival practices, and historical notions of narrative fidelity, large swaths of Tih-Minh’s memory have not survived their movement through time.

In this sense, speculation about Tih-Minh’s name is most usefully positioned as a heuristic device to contemplate the nature of her memory, the serial’s memory, and the translations of identity the character and serial undergo through the process of transnational migration. As such, I cannot help but identify with Tih-Minh in some way, guided by the self-reflexive curiosity of watching the earliest representation of my ethnicity that I have ever seen on-screen. I am looking for myself, but I am also watching the serial repetition of cultural amnesia and collective memory undergone in the diaspora and in film history, of which Tih-Minh is only one episode.

This is an essay that makes visible the multidimensional instability that characterizes Tih-Minh in order to consider the act of historical writing within an archive characterized by fragmentation and unruly temporalities. Moving between several narrative strands, my historiographic method draws on Giuliana Bruno’s “kinetic analytic.” Introduced in her seminal work of feminist historiography, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (1993), as a methodological response to a “ruined and fragmentary map” embodied by the mostly lost archive of Italian filmmaker Elvira Notari and “the silence surrounding this work,” Bruno writes that the kinetic analytic is one in which “the analyst’s gaze would be able to move, as does that of an anatomist, from visible traces on a surface to invisible ones inside the body of texts. Indexical and inferential, this approach goes in depth and also traverses intertextu(r)al sites of absent presence, riding on the crest of a visible invisibility.”2 Following Bruno, my inquiry will also wander over indexical and inferential traces of meaning, moving between the memory of Tih-Minh the character, Tih-Minh the document (its material substrate), and my own diasporic memory, suturing the spaces between in order to, as Bruno does, “[trace] overlapping textual journeys” and “[mine] the field of suppressed knowledge to reveal discontinuous, diverse, and disqualified areas.”3 Triangulating my own embodied experience as both spectator and writer with the movement of both Tih-Minh and Tih-Minh’s bodies through time, space, and archive, I will consider how my own analyst’s gaze might move beyond the surface of these bodies in order to illuminate interior spaces equally imbued with fragmentation, loss, and suppression. My goal is to refract lacunae occurring across entangled narratives—the memory of Tih-Minh, the memory of the film’s plot, and my own diasporic memory—transforming such refraction into resonance.

In short, I will chronicle my experience of finding and viewing Tih-Minh in order to situate historical inquiry, textual interpretation, and construction of subjectivity at the intersection of viewing and writing. For me, as a Vietnamese American woman, the processes of viewing Tih-Minh are entangled with the private fictions of memory and imagination, and the public fictions of diasporic Vietnamese collective memory—as equally shaped as Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh, or character and document, by fragmentation, loss, colonialism, migration, and erasure. In this way, Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh become unwitting metonyms for the Vietnamese diaspora that would occur more than fifty years later, a diaspora that would alter Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh’s meaning in their afterlife. This essay thus maps Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh along coordinates and constellations of narratives, bodies, and histories more typically associated with memory and diaspora than with silent serials.

To this end, my historiographic method combines Bruno’s kinetic analytic with Jennifer M. Bean’s historiographic call to invoke an “imagination of wonder” in the interpretation of what she calls “mystery-crime” serials. An “imagination of wonder” is a compulsive, imaginative stance suffused with skepticism and curiosity that “render[s] the modern world—the realm of the everyday—uncertain, marvelous, or surprisingly strange, wholly resistant to statistical logic and objective reasoning.”4 The designation “mystery-crime serial” distinguishes those silent serials privileging narrative indeterminacy from those privileging physiological thrills, all of which were categorized under what the trade press called “sensational melodrama.” As Bean situates an “imagination of wonder” in counterpoint to Peter Brooks’s melodramatic imagination, writing that these “respective ‘imaginations’” should be understood as “divergent responses to an increasingly secular society and the loss of providential plots,” I extend the utility of the “imagination of wonder” to the present-day diasporic individual, for whom the experience of cultural dislocation is often fundamental.5 By foregrounding and multiplying versions of Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh’s instability, instability is also serialized, in a process that makes visible, sensible, and poetic the textures of loss and remembrance that are themselves substantive, particularly in the Vietnamese diaspora, for whom loss has occurred serially through centuries of war and generations of fragmented memory.

For Bean, the aesthetic logic of mystery-crime serials consistently undermined the emerging logic of scientific seriality, so that, for example, an identity might be represented “in the form of a series, with the latter understood in the broadest sense as the temporal or spatial succession of similar or related objects.”6 Likewise, as my character that I inscribe into this essay is a similar and related object to Tih-Minh’s character, I want to explore the way in which my own performative encounter with Tih-Minh can serialize Vietnamese American women’s identities and subjectivities across the span of one hundred years. By closely analyzing several scenes, I will show how Tih-Minh the character becomes a double for Tih-Minh the serial and its network of material bodies: both are characterized by erased, or fading, inscriptions and cycles of reinscription.

For Tih-Minh the character, the proximate events of her migration to France, reeducation, amnesia, and mental restoration contain colonialist overtones and reflect France’s colonial history in Vietnam. They also reflect the experience of diaspora, and the common diasporic quest for memories that have not been experienced or cannot be restored. Frequently described as a ghost, or as moving between the living and the dead, or as translucent, hovering between the registers of conscious and unconscious, Tih-Minh’s movement through contemporary media atmospheres constitutes an afterlife, a haunting, a new episode. Rather than deploy a historiographic method that restores Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh’s textual meaning in response to the unruly production, circulation, and preservation of footage, intertitles, and inserts, I begin from the assumption that such modes of interpretation are essentializing and insufficient, especially when constructing a historical narrative over a lacunar map. Instead, I am choosing to multiply the forms and dimensions of instability, indeterminacy, and loss in Tih-Minh in order to place these bodies and identities in a series, imaginatively unfolding in an overall experience of wonder.

Situating Tih-Minh in a Series of Tih-Minhs

Recent research on Louis Feuillade’s serials suggests the impossibility of retrieving an “ur Tih-Minh.” Though the process of local inscription seems distinct to a digital era in which viewers may download, edit, and remix nearly any audiovisual text, scholarship on early serials suggests that film at its inception was made for transcultural export and local adaptation, and that the popularity of serials relied on intermedial adaptation, which altered a serial’s narrative arc according to local contexts. Furthermore, as Hervé Picherit notes, authorship in Feuillade’s serials should be understood as comprised of multiple “authorial events” that extend beyond the production of the film to restoration projects in the present day so that “successive acts of reception have frequently implied distinct acts of (re)creation.” Les Vampires (1915), Feuillade’s most celebrated serial, “has remained subject to mediating forces seeking to ‘make sense’ of the film before showing it to the public,” and “it is the evolution of these acts of ‘making sense’ over the past hundred years, that has produced a network of Vampires versions, each reflective of a particular reception experience and a different aspect of this cinematic phenomenon.”7 While Picherit was writing about Les Vampires, not Tih-Minh, several descriptions of Tih-Minh that I encountered, published in various decades, deviated wildly from the story described in the version that I watched, indicating, as Picherit suggests, a network of “acts of making sense of the film” as it moved through varying reception contexts in time and space. For example:

The Vampire Gang thrive under a new name whose initials G.S.E. mean God Strike England…in the center of the Vampires’ evil web is their victim: Tih-Minh, an (Indochinese princess) who is to be punished for the death of Irma Vep.8

Vampire queen Irma Vep was killed at the end of Les Vampires but her gang has survived in Nice. In this sequel Tih Minh has taken over as their leader and plans to take over the world.9

“The action is too slow for the US market,” wrote Léon Gaumont from New York to Louis Feuillade. It was June 1920 and though it is unclear whether Gaumont was writing about a particular serial or just on serials in general, he could very well have been referring to Feuillade’s serial In the Clutches of the Hindu (Tih Minh, 1919) that was announced as a state-right release the next month.10

In these descriptions, published in 1964, 2009, and 2011, respectively, the figure of Tih-Minh shifts from victim to aggressor, hostage to criminal mastermind, troubling which side of the serial’s good-evil and foreign-native binaries she resides, simultaneously foregrounding or decentering Tih-Minh in relation to other characters in Feuillade’s serial universe (notably, the character of Irma Vep and her “vampire gang” are not explicitly alluded to in the version of Tih-Minh that I watched). While my version of Tih-Minh most closely aligns with a narrative for which the title In the Clutches of the Hindu would be apt, the narrative in my version does not correspond to any of the narratives above, troubling the provenance of its intertitles—or the intertitles read in the versions above. For this reason, I know that I am already beginning to interpret a text marked by gaps and speculation.

Picherit also notes that in the silent era, inserts and intertitles were filmed, developed, and distributed separately from the movie (and often localized to appeal specifically to a regional audience) so that “the projectionist’s task involved piecing together three identifiably different types of film, originating from distinct sources, into one coherent and projectable whole.” This material fragmentation of narratives, inserts, and intertitles produced a purposeful narrative modularity that allowed cultural commodities to be “glocalized”: to circulate internationally for local adaptation. Not only were films at that time “assumed to be an essentially ephemeral commodity whose value was exhausted as soon as a given title ceased to draw audiences,” with its negatives “regulated as industrial waste,” film was also exploited for its ability to produce versions, rather than copies, of itself. As Picherit argues, “A movie’s ubiquity did not guarantee the faithfulness of its copies to one another, or even its conformity to a common ‘urfilm,’ since the negative was not perceived as fulfilling this platonic role.”11

In a case study of Tih-Minh's recent restoration, presented at II Cinema Ritrovato on August 28, 2020, representatives from Gaumont-Pathé Archives and the film restoration laboratory L'Immagine Ritrovata noted that while the original negatives were used to restore Tih-Minh, two of these original reels were heavily decayed. Moreover, the original negatives did not include intertitles, but rather shots demarcating, through the beginning of a phrase, the placement of (now missing) intertitles. Thus, a print archived in Belgium's Cinematek, containing bilingual intertitles, was consulted for reference. These Belgian intertitles, along with exhibitor brochures, were used to reconstruct Tih-Minh's intertitles, letters, telegrams, cards, and news stories. L'Immagine Ritrovata's representative noted that the two versions, comprising different generations of the serial, were, in certain sequences, edited differently, or were at other times consistent with one another, with neither edit presented in logical order. This description of the restoration process demonstrates the material fragmentation that occurred through production and distribution practices at the time of Tih-Minh's release, as well as the kinds of contemporary interventions made by those seeking to preserve Tih-Minh in as close to its “original form” as possible.12

At the II Cinema Ritrovato presentation, it was announced that Tih-Minh's restoration would be available on DVD at the end of 2021.13 For now, a version of Tih-Minh with English subtitles is difficult to find and watch. A few, most likely unrestored, versions are available on DVD and for sale on rare film websites and eBay. A version exists on YouTube and the Internet Archive, with French and Dutch intertitles.14 The filmmaker Lev Kalman, through the invite-only cinema torrent site Karagarga, found and sent me a subtitled copy. This is the copy I watched, and which I relied on to write this essay. I viewed this copy as an imperfect artifact, one that had been written, rewritten, written over, and translated—not unlike Tih-Minh herself. I approached the copy as a version in a network of versions in which the notion of authenticity had already been destabilized. As such, I acted quite irreverently: watching on my desktop computer, I clicked through to different moments, moved backward and forward, listened to music in the background, projected it on my wall, ate while watching, slept while watching, and watched it with friends. Receiving the serial in two large files, plus two files of subtitles, I watched without knowing when one episode ended and another began. I never favored one viewing practice over any other; that was not the point. My primary interest in Tih-Minh, then as now, was to free her from the representation that rendered her mute and without memory by finding a way for her to speak across time, and in doing so, give me words to describe an image of myself. Operating much like an intertitle, I cut between silent images of Tih-Minh—and between myself and the image—in order to describe a situation, mark dialogue between characters, or signal changes in time.

Published research on Tih-Minh has been scarce and cursory, most likely because scholars have relied on the mere handful of screenings that have made the serial available for viewing. As a result, other than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay “Tih-Minh, Out 1: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials” (1996), Aaron Cutler’s “The Treasure of Tih Minh” (2009), and a handful of online promotional materials related to screenings of Tih-Minh, I consulted research on Feuillade’s more notorious serials (notably Les Vampires and Fantômas [1913]) and silent serials in general to interpret my version of Tih-Minh.15 Furthermore, based on general agreement that there are twelve episodes of Tih-Minh, I divided the two received files into twelve episodes of roughly thirty-five minutes each.

From the very beginning of the first episode, directly following the title card and introduction of the serial’s main characters, an intertitle states that Tih-Minh is not about Tih-Minh at all: rather, it is described as “the story of an explorer” (her fiancé, Jacques d’Athys) “at the Villa Lucile in Nice.” However, the serial’s title, the amount of time Tih-Minh appears on-screen (approximately one-third of the first episode, for example), and the cycle of capture and rescue Tih-Minh is subjected to challenge this suggestion and place the pursuit of Tih-Minh at the center of the narrative drama. Functioning doubly as what serial queen Pearl White termed the “weenie,” or the hero and villains’ pursued object, and the stand-in for the pursued object (an inscription detailing the location of unknown treasures), Tih-Minh’s serial conquering, deprogramming, and reprogramming propel the narrative momentum.16 Despite descriptions of her edging on inactivity, Tih-Minh’s cyclic dehumanization and restoration is the story’s driving force; her mental erasure is described interchangeably as amnesia, unconsciousness, and death.

Arriving from French Indochina to his estate, the Villa Lucile, Jacques d’Athys presents to his family and employees his young Vietnamese fiancée, Tih-Minh, who arrives in traditional Vietnamese garb. She is whisked quickly and happily into the villa by d’Athys’s sister. “Soon,” an intertitle describes, “the young Vietnamese woman was transformed.” Tih-Minh is re-presented to d’Athys, having changed (or having been changed) out of the dark silk shirt and pant set she arrived in and into a white long-sleeved dress with a giant bow. Admiring her sartorial transformation, d’Athys taps his finger on Tih-Minh’s forehead, and, according to an intertitle, says to his sister, “I entrust you with her education.” She is again whisked away. According to an intertitle, upon the completion of her “rather limited education,” she spends her days indulging her whimsical nature by taking long walks on the cliffs, rowing her boat, and picking endless bouquets of flowers.

Shortly after this return to France, d’Athys is summoned on a mission to India.17 He is away for almost two years, and returns with a book in his luggage, The Nalodaya. At around the same time, a wealthy English lord is robbed and rendered amnesiac. Tih-Minh’s captors are shown receiving a note stating that within the inside cover of The Nalodaya is an inscription, written in pencil, detailing “the existence of fabulous treasures” that “could be of considerable importance in the event of a European war.” To obtain The Nalodaya they kidnap Tih-Minh, who is rowing on a calm sea, and bring her to the Villa Circe, where she is fed “the potion of forgetfulness.” The following day, despite having kidnapped Tih-Minh and erased her memory, Kistna, Tih-Minh’s captor who manufactures the amnesiac potion, visits a despairing d’Athys and asks to borrow the book. Placide, d’Athys’s servant and the source of Tih-Minh’s comedy, erases the inscription, thinking it’s just scribbling. The first episode ends with this erasure.

In the following episode, d’Athys informs Kistna that he had taken a photograph of the inscription as backup. Thus ensues, over the course of the remainder of the serial, a chase for the photograph, which comes to be called Document 29, with Tih-Minh repeatedly taken hostage in exchange for the document. Having arrived much like the inscription on the inside cover of The Nalodaya (in the company of d’Athys after returning from his travels to Asia, potentially from a French colony), Tih-Minh is a double to the document itself. As doubles, they are presented as colonial artifacts: texts that have been erased, rewritten, and “restored.”

Tih-Minh was filmed and released just after the end of World War I, a period that saw the merging of French nationalism and filmmaking in response to Hollywood’s consolidation of the global film industry. Although Vietnam was a French colony from the mid-nineteenth century, World War I saw the first major wave of Vietnamese migration to France, initially in the form of military recruits, and then as artisans, students, and workers with European spouses, who Virginia Thompson notes were “professionally and socially…treated as Frenchmen.”18 As such, in its oscillation between unconscious amnesiac and reeducated subject, the figure of Tih-Minh appears as both a projection of a postwar, shell-shocked nation-state and a representation of colonial extraction. In her article “‘Never Twice the Same’: Fantômas’s Early Seriality” (2016), Ruth Mayer points out the relationship between disguise and foreignness in Feuillade’s film Fantômas, calling “the foreign…one other element of masquerade,” suggesting that “once the person is stripped of all these superficial marks…what is left is a smooth, nondescript, inconspicuous, unremarkable emptiness, a ‘nothing’ or phantom: Fantômas.”19 In light of the prevalence of disguise in Tih-Minh, which is often deployed in the service of theft and deception, I want to extend Mayer’s sentiment to consider how Tih-Minh’s education and characterization as “erased” document can be considered an act of ethnic purification and tactic for power utilized by a nation whose coherence of identity, due to the trials of war and immigration, had been rendered precarious.

In other words, while Tih-Minh’s reeducation represents an explicitly colonialist practice, it also functions to whitewash and align her along a less threatening axis. As Rosenbaum reiterates, “The colonialist trappings of Tih-Minh, the anti-German and anti-Bolshevik sentiments (many of which suggestively coalesce around a German spy named Marx), the preoccupations with espionage, surveillance, disguise, and diverse forms of mind and memory control are redolent of the late teens not merely as waking dreams but as everyday hypotheses, and much of the magic of this serial resides in the continual and often subtle crossovers that occur between these two registers.”20 Indeed, the oscillations between dreaming and wakefulness, memory and reality, consciousness and unconsciousness, and fact and fiction infuse uncertainty throughout a narrative that consistently turns to science, health care, and technology as cure.

These oscillations and uncertainties act in service of what Bean calls “the aesthetic logic of seriality,” which is “capable of infinite varieties and outcomes, of deferring, toying with, ramping up, and rerouting viewer expectations.” This aesthetic logic, especially within mystery-crime films, may “both flaunt and undermine the serial logic inherent to new methods of controlling social behavior and comprehending the natural world.”21 In Tih-Minh, mental inscription in the form of rewriting, reeducation, and memory restoration is presented alongside the serial reproduction of filmic images, which amplifies an overall sense of precarity: the indexicality attributed to photographs is undermined by the ease through which they disappear, reappear, and change meaning through international circulation, suggesting, through the instability of inscription, interconnected anxieties around the porous boundaries of self and machine in the midst of technological and colonial expansion.

Orientations in an Uncertain Space

In Tih-Minh, the logic of the cut and the logic of the coastline are frequently used to trouble Tih-Minh’s physical, conceptual, and psychological orientation. In the first episode, Tih-Minh is kidnapped while rowing her boat to sea; in looking for her, d’Athys frequently gazes out over the water (fig. 1). Not only does this suggest the sea as the space between d’Athys’s estate, the Villa Lucile, and the estate of her captors, the Villa Circe, it also suggests the possibility of a conceptually liminal space in which Tih-Minh might be lost. Attached to the space in which her memory disappears, and symbolized by an empty boat, the water additionally becomes the site at which characters commune in memory, dreams, and imagination. That water divides the space between Tih-Minh’s new home and the estate of her captors suggests that Tih-Minh’s spatial orientation within the film’s “map” is always unstable and unmeasurable.

FIGURE 1.

Tih-Minh is chased by her captors while rowing at sea; Jacques d’Athys is taken to the coast where Tih-Minh disappeared; cut to a panning shot across the sea; Tih-Minh’s disappearance is marked by her empty boat. Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919. Source: screen grabs by author.

FIGURE 1.

Tih-Minh is chased by her captors while rowing at sea; Jacques d’Athys is taken to the coast where Tih-Minh disappeared; cut to a panning shot across the sea; Tih-Minh’s disappearance is marked by her empty boat. Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919. Source: screen grabs by author.

The horizon line serves to imply proximity between two spaces, when in fact distance remains ambiguous: the Villa Circe, and by extension Tih-Minh, could conceivably be as far away as Vietnam, or imaginary realms. All options are available as an explained distance between one location and another. This suggestion is further reinforced through the logic of the cut. As David Bordwell has written, Feuillade employed mostly depth staging and long takes, using choreography to guide viewer attention and the distance between figures and distance to camera to initiate “the scene’s action or [develop] the drama to a higher pitch of intensity.”22 Although occasionally used for continuity devices such as cut-ins, eyeline matches, and shot-reverse-shot, cuts were mostly employed to move the spectator from one scene to the next or during the serial’s many chases. In this case, entering and leaving the edges of continuous frames establishes continuity and implies connection, as the viewer has been trained to “stitch” these landscapes together as elements of the same conceptual space, however unlike or distant they may be. By this logic, the edit not only implies continuity as characters run from one vista to another, but also utilizes film’s changing narrative technologies toward imperialist agendas: folding and suturing large distances of space, smoothing differences neatly into one unified narrative.

Once taken to the Villa Circe, the cut and fade-out are used to further trouble both Tih-Minh’s and Jacques d’Athys’s locations in physical and conceptual space. With Tih-Minh lying unconscious on a chaise, Dolores, a clairvoyant who Vicki Callahan suggests is “a kind of shadow or reversal” of Tih-Minh and “the instrument of Tih-Minh’s ‘translation,’” leans her forehead against Tih-Minh’s forehead (fig. 2).23 The image cuts from a fade-out of the characters hovering around Tih-Minh to a fade-in of an image of d’Athys at sea, staring at the horizon line, suggesting either that Dolores can “see” what Tih-Minh “thinks”; that the spectator can “see” what Dolores “sees” and what Tih-Minh “thinks”; or perhaps that Tih-Minh, or d’Athys, or the spectator is “at sea,” which again implies an undetermined location, a geographical, historical, and conceptual nowhere.

FIGURE 2.

Three consecutive shots from Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919: Dolores leans close to Tih-Minh; following intertitle; Jacques d’Athys at sea. Source: screen grabs by author.

FIGURE 2.

Three consecutive shots from Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919: Dolores leans close to Tih-Minh; following intertitle; Jacques d’Athys at sea. Source: screen grabs by author.

Following this, Dolores attempts to order Tih-Minh to take The Nalodaya from d’Athys. Resistant, she is forced to drink Kistna’s “potion of forgetfulness” in order to produce compliance. After this is completed, Dolores again leans her forehead on Tih-Minh’s forehead and declares that everything is “fading…a big black hole.” The image fades out as though an eye is closing, suggesting that Dolores and the spectator are viewing Tih-Minh’s fading “mind’s eye”—her memory, identity, and voice. Shortly thereafter, the fade-out is again used to produce logic and continuity between Tih-Minh the character and Tih-Minh the document. The following day, d’Athys receives a photo of Tih-Minh sitting beside a vase of flowers and a calendar turned to the present day, alongside the message: “She is alive.” Before he can share the image, it also fades to black (fig. 3). An intertitle declares: “The unfocused image had dissolved into a dark spot.” This plot twist, connecting Tih-Minh’s mental erasure with a dissolving image, reveals an early awareness of imaging technologies as an apparatus of communication and control. Connected to Dolores’s and Kistna’s abilities to surveil, erase, and manipulate the mind, it also suggests the threat of the foreign upon the (perceived) coherence of the nation.

FIGURE 3.

Jacques d’Athys receives a photograph of Tih-Minh seated beside a calendar turned to the present day, inscribed with the words “She is alive”; when showing the photo to his sister, d’Athys discovers that the image has turned black; following intertitle. Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919. Source: screen grabs by author.

FIGURE 3.

Jacques d’Athys receives a photograph of Tih-Minh seated beside a calendar turned to the present day, inscribed with the words “She is alive”; when showing the photo to his sister, d’Athys discovers that the image has turned black; following intertitle. Tih-Minh (dir. Louis Feuillade), 1919. Source: screen grabs by author.

Callahan writes that the dissolve in Fantômas’s opening sequences divides the serial’s lead characters from their “clandestine identities,” and can be read as Feuillade’s skeptical commentary on the crime photo portrait and Bertillon system of identification’s “effort to address the uncertainty and unwieldiness of the photographic image.”24 Likewise, Tih-Minh’s memory, the inscription on The Nalodaya, and the fading photograph foreground a fundamental distrust in—albeit reliance on—the fidelity of imaging technologies in acting as evidence. The serial’s many chases are grounded in the serial reproduction of the originating inscription despite (or perhaps made urgent by) images that disappear or are erased before the characters’ very eyes. Since none of the pursuers have translated or understand the contents of the inscription, it is as if what is being pursued is endlessly replicating, and yet endlessly illegible, even when in the possession of any of the characters. Furthermore, the inscriptions’ media—the mind, photographs—function as palimpsests to be filled with potential plot twists and alternate meanings. As a double to Document 29, the erasure and reprogramming of Tih-Minh’s memory renders her, as Rosenbaum has written, “a palimpsest of separate guises and identities, a series of improvisations that makes each character essentially a ‘work-in-progress,’ a text undergoing successive and almost continuous revisions.”25

Furthermore, Callahan writes that Feuillade’s consistent use of the dissolve foregrounds “the space between photographic images,” a space that, “like the dissolve, always blends over into the next frame, image, or action, thereby repeating the process of stability/instability and certainty/uncertainty.”26 By appearing between a shot of Dolores laying her forehead on Tih-Minh’s forehead and a shot of d’Athys at sea, the fade-out suggests a conceptual continuity between what Dolores sees, what Tih-Minh sees, and what the spectator sees, while at the same time, because of the attention it draws to the space between images, rendering this suggested continuity unstable and uncertain. Like the crime photo, the image’s accuracy is always in question: there is no tangible evidence to corroborate that what Dolores says and sees is what Tih-Minh sees, and this destabilizes the logic of continuity editing that seeks to engender perceptual common sense. It is always possible that Dolores’s narrative is embossed upon Tih-Minh, whose mind and memory are rendered barely conscious, and, via their perceived “emptiness,” more available to inscription: the spectator sees what Dolores claims to see, not what Tih-Minh, whose memory has been erased and reinscribed, sees. That content is inaccessible.

The dissolve also functions prominently in Tih-Minh’s opening credits, which introduce the actors and the characters they play against a black background. Tih-Minh, played by the actress Mary Harald, appears to dissolve from a (stereotypically portrayed) Asian woman to a French woman. As Rosenbaum observes:

The two successive views we’re offered of the title heroine (an Annamite orphan and refugee “saved” from Indochina by Jacques and brought by him to France in the serial’s opening scene, just after this introduction), played by an English actress, give us an encapsulated account of colonization in the space of a single dissolve. Our first, “Asian” view of her shows her seated on a sofa in lotus position, holding a fan; our second, “Western” view shows her feet down, a kitten in her lap; both present her as a creature and object of luxury.27

Here, Rosenbaum asserts that the dissolve functions to highlight Tih-Minh’s perceived ethnic and cultural fluidity, and the ease of her so-called transformation collapsed across a visible distance.

In this instance, the dissolve denaturalizes causal and temporal connections that might otherwise appear natural, illuminating the space between. Callahan writes that the dissolve at the introduction to Fantômas “move[s] us from one identity to another, helping to anchor us to the definition of the characters to follow but at the same time demonstrating, through the very movement of the dissolve, the unsteadiness, or the unheimliche dimension, of that anchor.”28 Similarly, this opening dissolve foreshadows Tih-Minh’s physical and psychological transformation while also making ephemeral and visible the boundary between one version of Tih-Minh and another. Introduced with an intertitle crediting Mary Harald, the space between selves is not only between versions of Tih-Minh but also between actor and character, artifice and performance, destabilizing the borders of fact and fiction beyond the text and into the realm of the actors and spectators involved.

The Seriality of Tih-Minh

While I agree with Rosenbaum’s sentiment that the dissolve functions to highlight Tih-Minh’s perceived ethnic and cultural fluidity, I found his characterization of Harald as an English actress playing a half Vietnamese character in a form of yellowface worth interrogating, given Tih-Minh’s biography. At the II Cinema Ritrovato presentation, Gaumont-Pathé Archives's representative remarked that Harald's mixed European and Asian ancestry was the direct inspiration for Tih-Minh's “colonial settings, criminal bands, and international spies plotting to jeapordize the French empire.”29 Moreover, in a 1923 interview with Cinémagazine, Harald revealed a biography quite similar to Tih-Minh’s: “I was born in Indochina, Hong Kong, near the Cambodian border, to a French father and an Annamese mother. The name of the latter is not unknown to movie lovers, since it serves as the title for one of Mr. Feuillade’s productions…it’s Tih Minh, indeed.”30 Thus, Harald reveals a doubling of her mother and character creation, with a parallel relationship to colonialism and cultural hybridity: a character in series.

Harald’s Cinémagazine interview is an example of the ways in which intertextual tie-ins connected the female stars of silent serials, or serial queens, to the characters they played. In her article “Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body” (2001), Jennifer M. Bean argues that such tie-ins reinforced burgeoning star discourse by enhancing the tension and believability of the power and precarity portrayed on-screen. Developed in tandem with the massification of modernity and World War I, technologies of stardom deployed the female body as a ready-made response to military-industrial modernity, made for “mimetic play,” “a vital figuration of…mimetic responses to modern trauma.” While Tih-Minh provides an aberrant case of the serial queen, who is conventionally characterized by transgression and independence, she aligns with Bean’s characterization of female stars as able “to act without thinking—to take play seriously.”31 And while Bean interprets such characterization “as a sign of enviable resiliency” in a culture gripped with anxiety, Tih-Minh’s “thinking subsumed by action” in this case seems less empowering; her amnesia, so often described as “unconsciousness,” reads as an embodiment of shell shock, as if, in response to the trauma undergone by soldiers returning from the war, shell shock is displaced onto the body of the foreign woman.32

Furthermore, according to Richard Abel, this “doubling” of the series heroine and the discursive body of the star, serialized through media tie-ins and burgeoning fan magazines, extended “the boundaries of characterization…beyond the screen,” allowing moviegoers to “play with such traces of the star’s multiplying body” and “engage with them in their own off-screen performance play,” further serialized through fan scrapbooks and the like.33 By presenting Mary Harald playing a version of her mother through the character of Tih-Minh, Cinémagazine offered readers the opportunity to play with a “series” of characters, integrating fact and fiction and enhancing the believability and authenticity of the narrative portrayed on-screen.

Such a “cut” between text and spectator implies continuity and aligns me with Tih-Minh, Mary Harald, and the disappearing document. This unmeasured space between us functions much like the water in Tih-Minh: as the conceptual nowhere, the space where characters meet in memory, imagination, and dreams, as an amorphous form marking contingency. It suggests an understanding of diasporic Vietnamese subjectivity through networks of embodied relations: to be Vietnamese, no less half Vietnamese, in diaspora is to live among multiple juxtapositions that require unlikely logic in order to understand their contingency, among impossible expectations for inaccessible authenticities. Through intergenerational transfer and serial embodiment, Harald’s performance reaches into the past to covertly embed alternate narratives within Tih-Minh the character, a text assigned by Feuillade as “empty” and “devoid” of content. These alternate meanings have continued to shift and change through the serial’s afterlife, alongside several other generations of Vietnamese diaspora.

I cannot help but consider the possibilities: Did Harald feel, by playing Tih-Minh, that she could come to an understanding of what it meant for her mother to leave Vietnam and marry her father? To translate her mother’s memories of Vietnam? To interpret the unspoken and the illegible? This shadow performance lurks silently under the surface of the story, also unable to be restored. Still, perhaps it’s useful to sketch Tih-Minh as a serial character, carrying within multiple episodes of itself: the original Tih-Minh (Mary Harald’s mother), Mary Harald, the Tih-Minh who lived in Vietnam, and the various versions of Tih-Minh who were inscribed and erased upon arrival in France. And upon this network of versions, I project myself, and my mother, and her mother, and so on. Here, at the scene of writing, I take this perspectival stance, one composed of orientations that are always approaching the scene from multiple mental, physical, temporal, and conceptual orientations arranged around the water, where each image, shot, or action is divided from the next by a demarcation of the unknown space between.

With its multidimensional emptinesses, I view the text as an analogy of memory in the diaspora, whose collective memory is often preserved by highly mediated expressions of culture, incomplete and insufficient narratives bordered by forgetting again and again, scintillating tiles set among gaps that “always [blend] over into the next frame, image, or action, thereby repeating the process of stability/instability and certainty/uncertainty.”34 I know that to watch and interpret this way is not the same conditions the film imagined for itself, and I know that when Tih-Minh disappears into the edge of one frame and out the edge of the next, she does not disappear into the gap of a century of wars, only to emerge so that I, too, may chase her from frame to frame while she runs from her pursuers who, each time they capture her, make her shed her self and live as a ghost. Maybe, if she is running and if I follow, she will lead me back to the stories that have been forgotten. All original meanings will be restored. Unfortunately I, with the hindsight of the past one hundred years, know that such a place cannot exist. And yet still I follow.

In the Dissolve between Centuries

I cannot help but notice this uncanny bit of foreshadowing: that Tih-Minh’s disappearance is marked by the appearance of her empty boat on the horizon, floating over a desolate sea. Moved from one side of the water to another, Tih-Minh drinks the potion of forgetfulness, and her memory is restored. At one point Dolores narrates Tih-Minh’s forgotten childhood in Vietnam while conjuring an “image” for the viewer to see, until suddenly Tih-Minh, too, remembers, and is able to conclude her own history. Characters fall asleep and wake up—who is dreaming or who is sleepwalking remains unclear. The experience feels endless, disorienting, exhausting. On several occasions, while watching Tih-Minh, I fell asleep.

In my dream, Saigon was being evacuated, and I was with my mother, and we were getting on a boat, and she was telling me to take one last look around. What should I look at? I asked her. I’ve never been here before. So I imagined all the things I’d seen on TV: families running to helicopters, climbing over the gates of the embassy, lining the pool with suitcases, babies hoisted over the edges of boats. Palms. Long-haired singers wearing white áo dài. I imagined myself watching scenes of the war that have come to be considered iconic, on the news and in movies, classmates turning their heads to look at me anytime the word “Vietnam” was spoken, my parents always so busy that there wasn’t much time to talk about what happened, and so I understood it was best to remain compliant, and make myself small, and that the only way to play and be spontaneous was to be cerebral, living vicariously through the frame until I only understood myself as an image performing within one.

I allowed the melodrama of media representations of war to reconstitute the images of a memory I had never experienced, but which shaped my experience of home. I could feel a certain grief, the presence of a certain absence, unavailable to me by other means. In the same way, certain vague images, like a transparent Tih-Minh crossing the water, pass through the porous threshold of my memory and enter the world of symbols I have organized to understand as a set of unarticulated ambiguities, which nevertheless compose a backdrop to my interior dramatization of life as I replay it back to myself. I can only understand these images as doubles that allow me to contemplate diasporic loss and maternal loss, compounding networks of losses that orient me within my own experience, my own historical-conceptual map.

In his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), Viet Thanh Nguyen uses the example of the collective memories of the Vietnam War (as it is called in the United States) and the American War (as it is called in Vietnam) to argue that the memory of war is often industrialized as a strategic resource in the reproduction of existing power relations:

The technologies of warfare and memory depend on the same military-industrial complex, one intent on seizing every advantage against present and future enemies who also seek to control the territory of memory and forgetting. But a military-industrial complex does so not simply or only through a memory industry based on the selling of baubles, vacations, heritages, or entertainment. The memory industry produces kitsch, sentimentality, and spectacle, but industries of memory exploit memory as a strategic resource. Recognizing that the memory industry is only one aspect of an industry of memory enables us to see that memories are not simply images we experience as individuals, but are mass-produced fantasies we share with one another. Memories are not only collected or collective, they are also corporate and capitalist. Memories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power. Furthermore, just as countries and peoples are not economically at the same level, neither are their memories.35

In many ways, Tih-Minh portends this very reality: Document 29, an inscription-turned-series-of-photographs that “could be of considerable importance in the event of a European war,” similarly endows film’s capability to fix, store, and circulate still and moving images with the power to intervene and destabilize international relations, envisioning this reality at a moment in which international relations were volatile in an unprecedented way. Tih-Minh becomes this reality’s most vulnerable figure, transformed and silenced as she is from the moment she appears in the frame as a virtual image. It is actually from this moment that her memory is lost.

Like Nguyen suggests, my understanding of the war and its aftermath has been mediated by the competing and contrasting industrialization of memory of the Vietnam War by US media and diasporic media, each seeking to valorize their own kind. It is also defined by what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory.” According to Hirsch, postmemory “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.”36 Postmemory relies on a process of imbuing insufficient traces of images, stories, and documents with imaginative acts. In many ways, this process restores receding memories through imagination and creation, rather than through recollection.

Here I will refer to Bruno again, who, inspired by the preservation of frescoes, sought to reconstruct Dora Film’s archive by “leaving the gaps and making them (in)visible,” so that the mobile observer sees a seamless image from afar, however “on closer observation…becomes aware of the different textures of the reconstructed parts.”37 To make the textures of the reconstructed parts of Tih-Minh visible, I want to spend some time discussing the various gaps and restorations that lend texture to the experience of viewing Tih-Minh. Attending to these aesthetics also reveals something about their circulation, and vice versa, and the way in which memory needs media to embody it if it is ever going to leave the mind. To erase memory from Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh is also to alter their materiality, and thus, their meaning. In the next section, following Bruno’s kinetic analytic, I will move from one type of “visible trace on a surface” (cuts, dissolves, fades) to another (noise, degeneration, flickering) to enter “inside the body of texts” (meaning, memory).

Bootleg Memories, Generations of Loss

On Karagarga, Tih-Minh’s uploader details the origins of the copy I watched: “The first part [came] to me via my contact at the Suisse Cinematheque who in turn obtained it from the Cinematheque Francaise which at that time was as I originally uploaded.…Jonathan (Rosenbaum) then last November kindly sent me the remaining part which is included here.”38 In addition to revealing a multinational, multipart provenance, the uploader also details their process of data conversion, revealing four generations of technological conversion and compression:

First of all my thanks goes to the moderator crasus [sic] for his advice and permitting this upload. His advice was to upload a full DVD rip of both versions here, but if I was to have done that then there would have been a few issues; my DVD-Recorder seems insistent on recording everything 16:9 and the ratio for the upload here would have been the same with a pixel ratio of 768 x 524 which is not ideal, plus the frames per second would have been at 25 where the film should be played at closer to 18fps. I have therefore taken a decision to make two avi versions of both parts of the film with a ratio of 640 x480 [sic] as per KG guidelines which is an improvement over my initial upload of the incomplete version and have also ripped it in handbrake at 15fps which is as close as I can get to the correct speed.39

In other words, at each conversion from one format to another, multiple decisions were made to compensate for discrepant mechanical properties particular to the medium. Most likely, in its original iteration, dust, scratches, and uneven degradation upon individual frames produced a slight flicker effect, and as the film was transferred to video, shutter mismatching of capture device to movie projector created more flickering and ghosting effects. Subsequent transfers from VHS to DVD to AVI produced pixelation, blurriness, and loss of resolution.

Tih-Minh’s multiple generations of transnational adaptation, unruly archiving, data conversion, and restoration create a document of loss incurred from transmedia, intergenerational transfer. Moreover, the unique textures acquired through loss create a generative portrait of multigenerational memory, mirrored by the ghostly quality of the film in general and Tih-Minh in particular. The experience of viewing such haptic, tactile qualities in the film’s body—the texture of loss and degradation, scratches, flickering, opacity—is an embodied, emotional one that expands and elasticizes already-embedded meanings in the serial’s text. In indoor scenes, as the details of the black and white are lost, darker colors converge into amorphous backgrounds against which Tih-Minh, dressed in white, hovers in stark contrast, appearing to glow in a blurry auratic mass, much like a ghost hovering between the realms of the living and the dead. When I press play, the serial makes a soft scratching sound, not unlike the sound of a needle on a spinning record, and the image pulses in and out as if it were beginning to breathe. It certainly feels as though the serial’s figures are being revived, projected upon the wall and breathing quickly, an image marked by its own process of dying, and those who have sought to stave off its death.

Contextualizing my copy of Tih-Minh as a bootleg and placing my embodied experience watching it within Lucas Hilderbrand’s theory of bootleg aesthetics is useful for understanding the relationship between the simultaneous act of memorial and resuscitation in the face of material degradation. Chronicling the circulation and reception of bootleg copies of Superstar, Todd Haynes’s banned documentary about Karen Carpenter, Hilderbrand writes that “analog duplication of the text, rather than destroying the original’s aura, creates a new kind of aura that references the indexicality of analog reproduction and sensuously suggests the personal interventions that made the copy possible.”40 Like Superstar, my copy of Tih-Minh portrays its degradation alongside subtitles written in the garish fonts of iMovie, a dissonance that earnestly reflects a personal, noninstitutional translation, multiple generations of aesthetics, and a desire for dissemination by any means possible, revealing an “illicit object, a forbidden pleasure that has been watched and shared and loved to exhaustion.”41 In this way, the industrial logics of supply and demand that have restricted Tih-Minh's recent theatrical exhibition to a handful of screenings are inscribed onto the document’s skin, sensuously revealing its history of suppression and the untraceable paths to its origins.

Furthermore, Hilderbrand writes that “the de-resolution of [Superstar’s] tapes formally reflects the story of Karen’s wasting away. The film’s theme becomes expressed on the surface, even as it frustrates and interferes with standard spectatorial engagement with the narrative as the visual and audio information become obscured.” Hilderbrand likens the duping and distribution of copies of Superstar, each copy producing more copies with further degradation, to the act of “scattering Karen Carpenter’s ashes…into the collections of fans and cinephiles” and “[keeping] the film and Karen Carpenter alive.”42 Similarly, just as Tih-Minh’s aesthetic of obsolescence can help to mimic and embody the loss of Tih-Minh’s memory, so it simultaneously reinforces its recurring resurrection. Such circulation of Tih-Minh keeps it alive; reviving it again and again from the cycle of historical amnesia and what Bruno refers to as the “discursive ‘sleep’” that has kept Tih-Minh for the most part out of the discourse of film history.43

Post-memory is itself a “bootleg” that exhibits degradation as it is passed down from generation to generation. By this logic, the memory of Tih-Minh embodies my own diasporic memory, which is living in a certain afterlife, degrading unevenly as it shifts from one cultural context to another, selectively preserving what each format favors, compensating for difference by using available materials to get as close to the original as possible, accumulating imagined details within its gaps. With its multiple provenances, it is a unique document of translation and loss.

In response to such “disappearing images,” Laura U. Marks suggests the “haptic look,” which “permits identification with (among other things) loss, in the decay and partialness of the image.…[It] is not just about death, but about loving a living but noncoherent subject, an image that contains the memory of a more complete self.” Marks correlates Freudian definitions of melancholy with Western ideologies of ego coherence, arguing for a redefinition of subjectivity and the self that is instead invested in dispersion and interconnection. From this reimagining of the self, Marks writes, “we can imagine that melancholy does not preclude love but merely maintains love in the face of knowledge that the object of love is (always being) lost.”44 In this way, Tih-Minh’s unstable inscriptions generate new methods for the diasporic spectator to inscribe meaning while knowing that meaning is always multiple, fragmented, and partially fictive, to feel love and connection in an existence predicated on the forced separation from loved ones.

In her book The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000), Marks introduces a body of work she calls intercultural cinema, a minoritarian genre characterized by the production and representation of individual and collective diasporic experience, often through experimental styles. Notably, these films often present counter-histories or attempts to excavate suppressed or irretrievable pasts:

It is more recent that intercultural artists are in a position to interrogate the historical archive, both Western and traditional, in order to read their own histories in its gaps, or to force a gap in the archive so that they have a space in which to speak. Yet to undertake all this work, which requires the sometimes traumatic interrogation of personal and family memories, only to create an empty space where no history is certain, can be a psychically draining experience. The story suspends in order to contemplate this emptiness, which is narratively thin but emotionally full: it is the product of a process of mourning, a search for loved ones who have vanished and cannot be recalled with any of the means at the artist’s disposal. These lost loved ones may be people, places, or even ways of inhabiting the world. The grief may be individual or widely shared, but in these films and tapes it becomes a collective experience.45

If such concerns are characteristic of intercultural cinema, then I believe they invite speculation on what intercultural historiography might look like, marked equivalently by “the inability to speak, to represent objectively one’s own culture, history, and memory,” “silence, absence, and hesitation,” and “a lack of faith in the visual archive’s ability to represent cultural memory.”46 In that spirit, I too have sought to compose an essay that performs an intercultural historiography through making visible gaps in archives, interrogating personal and familial memory, and creating “an empty space where no history is certain.” Upon an already-unstable archive, those whose experiences are marked by the disjunctions of diaspora are well equipped to work with destabilization as an integral condition of any narrative. This tactic of forcing gaps in the archive might disrupt teleological conceptions of technological, narrative, and film history that privilege the study of serials in their original exhibition contexts in ways that invite investigation at the very rifts and seams that such destabilization has exposed, inviting expressions of memory that are plural and multiple, illuminating these absences in their spectral form.

Making Things Resonant

My study of Tih-Minh has attempted to map a set of interconnected “Tih-Minhs” through space and time, setting this map within a topology of lacunae, receding meanings, and speculative orientations, discovering that the materiality of such losses provides a substantive texture with which to navigate memory through seriality, knowing that the aesthetic logic of seriality will always subvert resolution and introduce more uncertainty, more loss. Nevertheless, these textures of loss and resolution compel an ethic of care for those selves that were shed in migrations, those who have died or have been erased from the historical record. My method has serialized Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh’s life, extending it to the present day. Thus, its temporalities have become multiple, stretched so as to imagine Tih-Minh’s past, present, and future.

I’m reminded of Surname Viet Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1989 film that utilizes narratives and depictions of Vietnamese women to make visible the fictions of identity, popular memory, and documentary. In this cross-genre film, Minh-ha frequently employs rephotography, a process of filming and photographing archival photographs in order to produce new meanings for the original images by presenting them in new contexts. As Minh-ha explains in an interview with Isaac Julien and Laura Mulvey, “Needless to say, media images of Vietnam are not only ideologically loaded; they are also gender clichés. So the point is not to simply lift these news images out of their contexts so as to make them serve a new context—a feminist reading against the grain, for example—but also to make them speak anew.”47

This process of rephotography also denaturalizes the original photograph by announcing the witness-photographer through the visibility of the frame and the transformation of the image as it moves from one medium or social context to another, dissociated from its origin. Discussing the reproduction and repetition of a grainy shot depicting three women moving, Minh-ha notes that in Surname Viet Given Name Nam each inclusion of the image is presented with different rhythm, framing, and visual legibility, until the final presentation of the image is in its original form, revealing its provenance as a journalistic depiction of captured female prisoners. As Minh-ha explains, this repetition creates multiple new meanings that further multiply through their (co)existence as ecology:

Rephotography displaces, and displacement causes resonance.…A multiple approach to the same image is at times useful to cause resonance in the very modification of the material. Just as the story of Kieu has been, throughout centuries, appropriated according to the ideological need of each government, the media images of women during the war have been shot for causes in which women hardly come out as subjects—never fully witnessing, only glorified as heroines or victimized as bystanders of, spectators to, and exiles in their own history.48

While I have not literally “rephotographed” Tih-Minh, by focusing on my experience of spectatorship I have reframed or re-presented Tih-Minh from the perspective of the diasporic viewer, and in so doing, generated a self-portrait of a Vietnamese woman witnessing a Vietnamese woman whose image “has been…appropriated according to the ideological need of [its] government…never fully witnessing…[an exile] in their own history.” While this perspective is marginalized within the fields of film and media studies, it served as the motivation for Tih-Minh’s awakening from discursive sleep, for an interrogation of what forms of narrative logic the history of such a text might demand. By re-presenting Tih-Minh within contemporary media contexts, I am not so much re-centering Vietnamese women within history as thinking about how history can be presented from the center of a suppressed archive.

Playing the serial’s multiple temporalities like a chord, and drawing attention to unlikely juxtapositions, contingencies, and serialities, produces a form of resonance. Moreover, my own postmemory of displacement could be re-presented as a memory of a resonance: a rephotograph. In its strictest definition, resonance is a sonic quality in which a musical tone is amplified by the production of additional echoes and vibrations. Such enrichment of sounds can occur within the body (the mouth), a room (on the walls), or on surfaces (should they begin to buzz).49 Of course, in vernacular usage, resonances may be attributed to things other than sound. In its enrichment of an original sound as well, resonance produces a form of seriality that reproduces the original sound in novel ways. As Minh-ha suggests, Tih-Minh is not alone in her exile from history. If so, perhaps these diasporic subjectivities can sing together, excavated through resonance across a lacunar map, a fading echo that remains present only if it is reproduced again through amplification or incitement, to speak anew in a dynamic chase that endlessly defers conclusion.

Notes

I would like to thank Ariel Rogers, Lev Kalman, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of Feminist Media Histories for their invaluable insights and suggestions.

1.

Sources diverge regarding whether Tih-Minh was released in 1918 or 1919, and whether or not the title is hyphenated. Following the title card of the copy I watched, I have chosen to hyphenate Tih-Minh. Following Gaumont-Pathé Archives, I attribute Tih-Minh's year of release to 1919. “EPI 1 - TIH MINH: LE PHILTRE D'OUBLI,” Gaumont-Pathé Archives, https://gparchives.com/index.php?urlaction=doc&id_doc=314110&rang=12.

2.

Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3–4.

3.

Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, 3, 5.

4.

Jennifer M. Bean, “Early Mystery-Crime Films, Scientific Seriality, and the Imagination of Wonder,” Velvet Light Trap 79 (Spring 2017): 95.

5.

Bean, “Early Mystery-Crime Films, Scientific Seriality, and the Imagination of Wonder,” 95. The distinction “mystery-crime serial” also deviates from the position of scholars such as Ben Singer, who abide by the industry term “sensational melodrama” and characterize this genre through a focus on action and spectator thrills. Notably, Bean points out that this characterization obscures narrative complexity and complex characters, regarding plot as merely a vehicle for thrilling action. Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

6.

Bean, “Early Mystery-Crime Films, Scientific Seriality, and the Imagination of Wonder,” 90.

7.

Hervé Picherit, “Making a Modernist Masterpiece: The Elusive Location of Cultural Significance in Les Vampires,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 4 (2018): 660, 656.

8.

“Tih-Minh,” BAMPFA, https://bampfa.org/event/tih-minh.

9.

Ken Wlaschin, Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009), 222.

10.

Rudmer Canjels, Distributing Silent Film Serials: Local Practices, Changing Forms, Cultural Transformation (New York: Routledge, 2011), 124.

11.

Picherit, “Making a Modernist Masterpiece,” 658, 657, 659, 658.

12.

This talk was given in French with a real-time translator to English; due to the speed of this translation, much of the information was lost. While the talk was presented in front of a live audience, I attended this presentation virtually. Manuela Padoan and Elena Tammaccaro, “Case Study: Tih Minh” (presentation, II Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, IT, August 28, 2020).

13.

Manuela Padoan and Elena Tammaccaro, “Case Study: Tih Minh.”

14.

“Tih-Minh,” Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/Tih-Minh/Tih-Minh.01.avi.

15.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Tih-Minh, Out 1: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials,” Velvet Light Trap 37 (1996): 58–65; Aaron Cutler, “The Treasure of Tih Minh,” Slant, December 24, 2009, https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/the-treasure-of-tih-minh/.

16.

Singer, Melodrama and Modernity, 208–9. According to Singer, this twinned, cyclic “capture and recapture” of the weenie and heroine were narrative conventions in US serials and inherited from stage melodramas.

17.

In my version, two separate intertitles write that d’Athys is summoned to India and to Lebanon, indicating a discrepancy.

18.

Virginia Thompson, “The Vietnamese Community in France,” Pacific Affairs 25, no. 1 (1952): 49.

19.

Ruth Mayer, “‘Never Twice the Same’: Fantômas’s Early Seriality,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 2 (2016): 354.

20.

Rosenbaum, “Tih-Minh, Out 1,” 59.

21.

Bean, “Early Mystery-Crime Films, Scientific Seriality, and the Imagination of Wonder,” 92, 94.

22.

David Bordwell, “La Nouvelle Mission de Feuillade; Or, What Was Mise-en-scene?,” Velvet Light Trap 37 (Spring 1996): 16.

23.

Vicki Callahan, Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 134, 136.

24.

Vicki Callahan, “Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade,” Velvet Light Trap 37 (Spring 1996): 39–40.

25.

Rosenbaum, “Tih-Minh, Out 1,” 61.

26.

Callahan, “Zones of Anxiety,” 40–41.

27.

Rosenbaum, “Tih-Minh, Out 1,” 61.

28.

Callahan, “Zones of Anxiety,” 40.

29.

The quote is a paraphrase of the presentation's real-time translator. Manuela Padoan and Elena Tammaccaro, “Case Study: Tih Minh.”

30.

Albert Bonneau, “Les Vedettes de L’Écran: Mary Harald,” Cinémagazine 19 (May 11, 1923): 227, my translation.

31.

Jennifer M. Bean, “Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body,” Camera Obscura 48, vol. 16, no. 3 (2001): 42, 38, italics in original.

32.

Bean, “Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body,” 38, 42.

33.

Richard Abel, “Movie Stars and Seriality in the 1910s,” Velvet Light Trap 79 (Spring 2017): 85–88.

34.

Callahan, “Zones of Anxiety,” 40–41.

35.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 14–15.

36.

Marianne Hirsch, “Mourning and Postmemory,” in Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 22.

37.

Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, 6.

38.

NeilMac1971, “Louis Feuillade — Tih Minh [Complete Version] (1918),” Karagarga, accessed October 1, 2019.

39.

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