SHIRKERS review: From Celluloid Dreams to the silver screen, Sandi Tan’s documentary stuns–and haunts
A swan drifts backwards on a hot pink lake. A car drives backwards through a tunnel. A yard floods with chocolate milk. Welcome to Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, or at least, to its after-life. The original Shirkers, created in 1992 by the peripatetic visionary, 19-year-old Tan and her equally restless friends and collaborators, Jasmine Ng—a one-time enemy, Tan tells us—Sophie Siddique, and a film teacher from the community center boasting industry connections named Georges Cardona. Shirkers is set to jumpstart the indie scene in Singapore. Instead, it creates its own mythos.
Tan, in a delightful, if melancholy voiceover, describes her adolescent self as so: “I had this idea that you find freedom by building worlds inside your head, that you had to go backwards in order to go forwards, that little kids had the answers to everything.” At age 18, she loved The Catcher and the Rye and helped her little cousins make punk collages. She dreamt of becoming the next “Coen sisters” with Ng, created a zine called The Exploding Cat, made shrines to Brecht, and devoured Film Comment. Along with relatives in Florida, she even established a video taping syndicate to screen Blue Velvet.
Cardona and Tan took a road trip across America one summer, to the suspicion of friends concerned about the age difference between the adolescent Tan, and Cardona in his forties. Though the relationship remained platonic, Tan noticed several signals on the trip that suggested mal-intent from her teacher.
Nevertheless, she recruited him to direct Shirkers, which she wrote and starred in, about a teenage assassin who, not unlike her literary idol Holden Caulfield, saves children. With the help of Ng and Siddique, Tan manages to obtain Singapore’s largest dog and, most crucially, investors for the project. Judging from the footage within Shirkers, the original film successfully evoked a wild Jarmuschian aesthetic, mixing adolescent energy with genuine daring.
This is a film made in 1990’s Singapore. Chewing gum is against the law. And this is a country Tan describes as the “tiny island in the center of the world.” This movie accomplished a look and an ethos unlike anything else coming out of Singapore at the time. But when shooting wrapped, and the crew went off to university, Cardona was tasked with editing the film. Except for some eerie audio recordings sporadically sent to Tan, no one heard from him again.
The betrayal nearly drove the friends apart, and stalled their filmmaking careers. Cardona had violated Tan, not physically or sexually, but through taking away the film that she had dreamt, and labored, into existence.
The Shirkers that exists today, a Sundance selection, and a Netflix Original Documentary, is what Rolling Stone describes as an “exorcism.” The footage she shot so many years ago was returned to her one day from Cardona’s widow. Though it was returned without being able to speak—no sound, just the canisters of 16mm film. Shirkers is Tan reclaiming a past that was stolen from her. It is also a time capsule of her life and of life in Singapore at that time. Tan’s editing shines, giving the viewer certain images to cling to—or to haunt us, it’s not too clear—providing just enough to excite, and building to a slow reveal.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the film are the relationships Tan forges with Ng, now a filmmaker and activist, and Siddique (now Sophia Harvey), the director of the film studies program at Vassar. Both Ng and Siddique had a hand in producing the 2018 film, just as they did in 1992, and it becomes clear that the friendship among them is still strong, if fraught. Tan and Ng have always been the closest, and it is Ng who reminds Tan that she was “an asshole” through the process of making the original Shirkers, and she accepts it.
By Ng’s account, Tan was demanding and uninterested in participating in the daily grind of producing—convincing investors to give you money—and monopolized the creative side. Tan may be reclaiming the film she lost years ago, but she is not apologizing for being an asshole to them. As one Vulture article points out, men have been OK with being an asshole for their art for, well, all of time. The gender reversal is glorious here.
The original Shirkers was about escapism. “Shirking” responsibilities. Envisioning new worlds. Tan’s remarkable film does not shirk, or skirt or skid, for that matter. Tan is breathing life into her own mythology.