Film Review: Shirkers
Year Released: 2018
Run Time: 1h 36m
Director: Sandi Tan
Screenplay: Sandi Tan
Reviewer: Sam Lackey, GBC English Faculty
This is the set-up for Sandi Tan’s peculiar and beguiling documentary Shirkers, named after the ill-fated film described above. Tan takes us a journey through not only her teen years in late 80s Singapore and the making of the film, but also the improbable recovery of the footage twenty-five years after its disappearance, and her attempts to resolve the pain and personal turmoil caused by the entire experience. Early on, we learn about Tan and her best friend Jasmine Ng, who meet as kids and are united in their love of avante-garde film and music, a love running counter to the restrictive moral and social codes which rule the small island nation and often result in censorship. At one point, Tan describes, with a delightful turn of phrase, the necessity of establishing a “clandestine videotaping syndicate with [her] cousin Vickie in Florida, just so [she] could watch Blue Velvet.” She and Jasmine begin writing for Singapore’s “underground rockzine,” The Big O, when they’re just 14, but after deciding that it’s a “lame boys’ club,” they form their own zine: Exploding Cat.
They later take a filmmaking class at a local arts center taught by Georges Cardona, described as “a man of unplaceable age and origin.” The mysterious Cardona takes the young movie enthusiasts to record local Hindu festivals and teaches them about the French New Wave. After class, he takes them on late-night car rides in order to “look for ideas.” After Tan goes away to England for college, they stay in touch and remain close, sharing brainstorming sessions and their love of cinema. She is determined to make a movie of her own and eventually enlists the help of her friends: Sandi pens the screenplay; her former film classmate Sophie will serve as producer; Jasmine will edit, and Georges Cardona will direct.
Always short on money and working with a skeleton, ragtag cast and crew (one of their production assistants is a 14-year-old kid, and several of the actors are nonprofessionals), the film they create, the original Shirkers, is revealed in a few short scenes and several individual shots interspersed throughout the documentary. It seems quite strange and good. Tan portrays the protagonist, described at one point as a “grim reaper type character”: a teen girl who decides to choose five people that she “likes well enough to kill,” beginning with her piano teacher. In the midst of her killing spree, she begins “collecting” other people, mostly children, with the intention of “taking them to the next world,” though, as Tan says, “it’s not clear if that world is heaven, hell, or a supermarket.” The footage we see is surreal, frequently playful, absurd, often dream-like, always compelling, and at times even moving. When Tan later watches American films like Rushmore (1998) and Ghost World (2001), she notices stylistic and tonal similarities to her own work, which are both creepy and indicative of her being ahead of her time.
The story of the film’s disappearance and Cardona’s inscrutability is best left for the viewer to discover, and it drives much of the documentary. But the overall picture Tan paints is fascinating on multiple levels: the history of the original film, the ways in which it serves as a time capsule for a bygone Singapore that has been transformed in the years since through rapid development, and the interpersonal relationships between Tan, her friends, and Cardona. Like the film she wrote as a college student, Tan’s documentary has an impressionistic, off-kilter, slightly eerie quality. But there’s also a wistfulness, a nostalgia, and a sort of hopefulness at work too. There are not many solid answers or easy resolutions here, but near the end, she shows us a brief sequence of the recovered film accompanied by a gentle guitar melody from a friend of hers back in Singapore, whose original soundtrack was stolen by Cardona. The sequence only lasts about a minute, but it’s evocative, and odd, and almost joyful, and one is left to regret that a truly finished version of the 1992 Shirkers will never exist. But Sandi Tan’s documentary delivers the next best thing: capturing the essence of a film that resides mostly in the minds of its makers.
,” Humanities Center at Great Basin College, accessed September 22, 2023, https://humanities.gbcnv.edu/omeka/items/show/464.