Ideas Journal

The Ground Underneath: On Ho Tzu Nyen's The Nameless

Võ Hồng Chương-Đài examines how Ho's film acts as a non sequitur to colonialist and nationalist historiographies


Image: Still from <i>The Nameless</i>, taken from <i>Cyclo</i> (1995).
Image: Still from The Nameless, taken from Cyclo (1995).

Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Nameless is a film pastiche about a historical figure who had more than fifty names. These aliases included Hoang A Nhac, Chang Hong, Soh King, Mr Wright, Lai Teck, Mr Light, Wong Show Tong, and Wong Kim Gyock. He is believed to have been born in Nghe An, in present-day central Vietnam, circa 1900. He was active in the communist parties in Indochina, Hong Kong, Canton, and Shanghai, and recruited for training in Moscow circa 1930. After being jailed and passed between the British and French security forces, he became a spy for the British and the Japanese in Singapore, and even the Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party. This was during the tumultuous interwar years of the 1920s to 1940s, when anti-colonial movements from the Indian subcontinent to Indochina gained momentum despite repeated European colonial suppressions. Concurrent to these seismic shifts was the rapid transformation of Japan into a modern military force eager to become an imperial power itself. Having proven its might in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), Japan represented for the future leaders of colonised Asia the urgency of modernising their societies as a means to rid themselves of their oppressors. These future leaders too navigated the Scylla and Charybdis of shady and dangerous alliances with imperial powers and regional factions, at times forced to put aside their reservations to achieve strategic goals towards national liberation.1

Against this backdrop, we can read the figure of Lai Teck as a metaphor for the countless nameless people who had to navigate the treacherous and constantly shifting borders of uncertain futures, and The Nameless as a non sequitur to the simplified structures of colonialist and nationalist historiographies.

Image: Still from <i>The Nameless</i>, taken from <i>The Grandmaster</i> (2013).
Image: Still from The Nameless, taken from The Grandmaster (2013).

For his bilingual, two-channel synchronised video film, Ho Tzu Nyen casts Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the Nameless. The Hong Kong actor has starred in nearly one hundred films, a repertoire of ready-made performances that Ho spliced together to create a fragmentary narrative. We see Leung as the gangster Poet in Cyclo (Tran Anh Hung, 1995), the guiled Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000), the devious politician Mr. Yee in Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007), and the legendary Ip Man of the Northern School of kung fu in The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai, 2013). These characters lived in times of monumental shifts—the embrace of the market economy by the Communist Party in Vietnam; the anti-British revolts and floods of immigrants from mainland China into 1960s Hong Kong; and Japanese colonialism in 1930s and 1940s China and Hong Kong. Taken together, these characters are studies into the nature of identity—its contingent and shifting performances of stability amidst chaos, and the role of storytelling in shaping our memories and perceptions of larger-than-life figures.

While the voiceover in The Nameless offers the semblance of a chronology of Lai Teck’s life, the visual markers such as the character’s age undermine any attempts at a stable narrative. The film is held together by a series of repeated gestures—the character smoking, fleeing, hiding, entering a room. Like history, the story is told with motifs and scenes that with repetition attempt coherence.


The Nameless is on view at Lingnan University 13–20 October 2017 as part of the programme The Performing Archive: Deep Archival Engagement as Artistic Practice.


Võ Hồng Chương-Đài is a Researcher at AAA.



1. I would like to thank Ashish Rajadhyaksha for inviting me to participate in the workshop series The Performing Archive, and for giving his feedback on this essay. For further reading, see Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan, Allen Lane, 2004; and Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, University of Minnesota: 1997.



Võ Hồng Chương-Đài

Mon, 16 Oct 2017

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