The territory of dreams: actual dreams, or visions; flashbacks, shifting and Chinese-boxing time; characters toting split identities, echoed by a series of material divisions, such as two distinct mansions; related to this, mirror-imaging, which is to say, opposite alternatives, including moral alternatives of human nature; shifting identities, at least, appearances, where disguise turns one character into someone new to our eye; instances of bondage and release, such as repeatedly befalls the titular heroine—and, in another example, the women imprisoned in the basement of the villains’ mansion, who are set free, creating an especially spooky image; lots of spooky apparitions and sights; seeming deaths that do not stick; and on and on and on.
In its repetitions and complexity as well, perhaps no other film is as dreamlike as Louis Feuillade’s phenomenal serial Tih-Minh. Made toward the end of the First World War, and perhaps anticipating a Europe of lingering menace, it is more lyrical than the silent crime films of Fritz Lang that it and other Feuillade crime serials may have inspired. The least interesting shots are the most prosaic ones, usually consisting of two standing men conversing with one another; formally, perhaps these incidents invoke the element of denial whereby dreamers deny they are dreaming and embrace their dreams as reality. Otherwise, the film—if you will allow me to call this 12-part serial a film—soars.
Jacques d’Athys has returned home from Indochina, accompanied by Tih-Minh, whose father is French, her mother, Asian. (In a prologue introducing the main characters, she is shown twice, once in the lotus position, and then “domesticated,” feet down and a cat in her lap.) Presumed to possess a treasure map in an ancient language, she is repeatedly kidnapped by a trio of avaricious villains, who administer an opium-based potion that induces amnesia, in which state she appears throughout much of the film. She has thus forgotten her father’s death and her intent to avenge it: a parody of Hamlet.
What beauteous imagery in haunting silence! Rowing across water, with its languorous suggestion of the unconscious; gathering flowers, here associated with the frailty of memory; hidden amidst bushes, a figure of surveillance, whom we alone espy, making us his mirror-image, each reflecting each. Feuillade’s Tih-Minh, lasting a dreamy seven hours (and, because of its open-endedness, lingering longer than that), may be cinema’s greatest orchestration of shadow and light.
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