Ho Tzu Nyen’s 2015 pair of videos, The Nameless and The Name, can be linked – like an increasing number of works over the last few decades – to the formal logics of the supercut video. 01 Artists such as Christian Marclay, Gustav Deutsch, Jennifer Proctor and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, among numerous others, have mined existing film and video footage, searching for particular elements and tropes in order to reveal something about cinematic and televisual discourse, whether this be a preoccupation with temporality (Marclay’s The Clock, 2010), with women in bathtubs (Proctor’s Nothing a Little Soap and Water Won’t Fix, 2018), with dead female bodies (Guevara-Flanagan’s What Happened to Her, 2016) or with the nature of the cinematic medium itself (Deutsch’s Film Ist, 1998). In an article tracing the ‘history and rise of the supercut’, film critic Tom McCormack attributes the term ‘supercut’ to a 2008 post by blogger Andy Baio, who uses the term to describe a video in which an amateur producer compiled every utterance of the word ‘What?’ in the television series Lost (2004–10). Supercuts may take different forms, from simple, amateur-produced compendiums of a single phrase in different films to complex split-screen synchronisations of YouTube vloggers talking about their medications – as in Natalie Bookchin’s My Meds (2009) – or revelatory excisions such as the Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in… series of videos by Dylan Marrow. 02 What unites these examples is the laborious process of finding, isolating and compiling similar or related clips. As McCormack points out: ‘Within the world of appropriation, the supercut is a kind of anti-readymade. It telegraphs work and time investment, even a sort of mastery. The more discursive the supercut, the more impressive it is in this regard.’ 03 McCormack notes many precursors to the contemporary supercut, including Joseph Cornell’s 1936 film Rose Hobart. Here Cornell took the Hollywood adventure film East of Borneo directed by George Melford (1931), excised nearly all of the footage that did not include the starring actress (the eponymous Rose Hobart), tinted the images blue and set the footage to music. Cornell’s film reads as an homage to Hobart’s beauty, surrendering narrative in favour of oneiric obsession. McCormack also links the supercut to Christian Marclay’s Telephones (1995), which collated images of people talking on telephones from many different films in order to comment on the ways in which telephonic communication holds the potential for both connection and its opposite. Indeed, Rose Hobart and Telephones seem respectively to provide templates for two different strands of supercut – the former limited in its source material, the latter more expansive. In this regard, while The Nameless reflects some of the strategies of Rose Hobart, I would argue that The Name is more akin to Telephones. In contrast to these works of Cornell and Marclay, however, both The Nameless and The Name suggest something that seems anathema to the supercut form and all its precursors, which generally seek to reveal discursive rather than material tendencies. They suggest, that is, that through an engagement with footage from fiction films, we can learn something about the actual historical past – a curious proposition to say the least.
In a manner akin to Rose Hobart, The Nameless takes images of famed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – albeit from as many as sixteen films rather than just one – and compiles, with an air of obsession, image after image of his face and body. 04Instead of adding music, however, Ho adds intertitles and a voice-over, which generate a very different effect. While some of the images have clearly been selected to reflect the content of the narration, in general the voice-over and images seem largely unrelated. The disembodied narration (which is sometimes voiced by two near-simultaneous male voices rather than just one) conveys the general outline of what is known about Lai Teck (1901–47), the one-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party. Teck, we learn, was a shadowy figure who went by many names and was alleged to have been, at various times, a spy for the French, the British and the Japanese before he was killed in Thailand in 1947. Former British military and police officer Leon Comber has described ‘the established “pattern” of his treachery throughout his political life: transferring his allegiance from one side of the fence to the other, without having any qualms in doing so about reneging on his former comrades’. 05 The Nameless seems to pose the question of what we can learn about history from the very sparse and contentious record that Lai Teck left behind. Ho’s decision to combine the narrative of Lai Teck with images of Leung adds an additional layer of fictionalisation to the biography of a man who told many different and incompatible stories about himself.