SHIRKERS Review: Reclaiming Your Art

Shirkers poster.jpg

In the summer of 1992 in Singapore, 20-year-old Sandi Tan made a movie. The film, called Shirkers, was a road movie heavily inspired by the French New Wave infused the youthful punk rock energy of Tan and her friends, Jasmine and Sophie. With Tan serving as writer and star and directed by the girls’ older American mentor, Georges Cardona, the young upstarts scrambled together resources, locations, and actors from friends, family, and locals to create something truly unique and inspired. With production wrapped, Cardona returned to the US with all of the canisters of footage to begin the editing process. He then, promptly, disappeared.

Twenty years later, the lost footage resurfaces, inspiring Tan to undertake an odyssey of personal reflection. The 2018 documentary Shirkers chronicles her attempts to make sense of the events of her lost film’s production and the mysterious nature of the man that stole it. Now a novelist living in Los Angeles, Tan’s journey in the years since has taken a self-admitted unorthodox path. At 22, she became a, in her words, terrible film critic in Singapore before attending film school in New York. Tan, serving as narrator for the documentary, remarks on the backwards trajectory of her young career. She didn’t have a proper road map laid out for her anymore; it had been obliterated.

The cause of that obliteration, Cardona is the puzzling void at the crux of the story, and Tan spends much of the last half of the film attempting to pin him down, following in his footsteps. Having arrived in Singapore to teach film classes, he’s a remarkably elusive character. Vague about his ethnicity and origins and bold in his claims of industry connections - he was, after all, the inspiration for James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape - it is perhaps this mystery that draws Tan towards him, the two forming a friendship that to outsiders seemed incredibly inappropriate.

With the popularity of obsessively investigative podcasts like S-Town and Serial, one might expect the film to fixate on such a bizarre mystery. And while Cardona’s influence and actions loom over the narrative, his betrayal does not overwhelm it. Tan spends much of her time cataloging the actual production of her film and the lives and personalities that fed into its making. Growing up in conservative Singapore, Tan and her best friend Jasmine devoted their time to outsider music and film, working their way around the relatively all-encompassing censorship laws of the country by way of bootlegging. They published their own zines full of crazy art and whatever thoughts and opinions spilled out of their teenage minds. The same anarchic spirit poured into Tan’s creation of the script for Shirkers, and likewise fed into the DIY attitude that sparked its creation.

Sandi Tan

Sandi Tan
Jasmine Ng Kin Kia
Sophia Siddique Harvey
Georges Cardona

The inventiveness bleeds into Tan’s documentary, though turned closer to nostalgia than her formerly unbridled, chaotic energy. The hazy, temporally-playful cuts and dreamy original score create some of the most evocative editing work of the year. Audiences get to see much of the original footage that was shot for the film, including a wealth of behind-the-scenes production diaries, cut together with interviews from her friends and various other players in the production. What we get to see shows a unique vision that could’ve made for a stellar first feature, despite a starring performance that Tan herself admits as “horrendous.” The lyrical quality of the largely plotless mood piece evokes the early work of Terrence Malick, especially Badlands. Interviews from locals, including a close friend and film critic, communicate how special and meaningful this film would’ve been to the community, showing what could be done in a place about as far from Hollywood as possible (a major studio production would not come to the country until this year’s Crazy Rich Asians).

The disappearance of the footage took much more from that from its intrepid young filmmakers. Tensions rose between Tan, Jasmine, and friend/producer Sophie both during and after production, and Tan uses the film to process a lot of that turmoil, not least of which the ways in which Georges fed those conflicts. In the process, the women get to reclaim their story in more ways than one. Despite the incomprehensibly cruel machinations of one insecure man, the Shirkers represents a celebration that couldn’t be had until the film’s rediscovery. Sandi Tan uniquely captures the insanity of filmmaking, derived from an unquenchable passion and fury that only the young of heart could so freely express. Though that spirit was cruelly stolen from each of the women, their film is a reminder of that time when they still had it, and of what a truly wondrous thing it is.

Shirkers is currently streaming on Netflix.