Sandi Tan grew up in Singapore desperate to be anything but ordinary, and in 1992 she and a group of friends produced a film that was so indebted to so many influences that it comes off as singular. Shirkers was a neo-Godardian, existential pastiche of zombie and serial-killer movies with magic-of-cinema touches straight out of Melies; its plot is inscrutable, but its sense of visual detail is indelible. Tan’s new documentary, also called Shirkers, chronicles the creation, disappearance, and reclamation of this film, a potential landmark of Singaporean cinema that was never released or even finished.
Tan’s stranger-than-fiction film is structured around the twisty, involving story of how Shirkers vanished for a generation, but it’s more broadly—and more potently—a deeply personal work of sociocultural archaeology. Scrapbook-style animations and collages are a long-worn trope of contemporary documentary, but Shirkers is born of early-‘90s punk and zine culture, and Tan fills the screen with the postcards, clipped newspaper articles, and daydream doodles she traded with her teenage friends and fellow Shirkers producers, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. “We gotta be the Coen sisters I swear,” reads one scrawl, and Tan makes credible parallels between Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and her earlier film.
Rebelling against a state that banned the chewing of gum, Tan and her friends took part in a shared, proudly “alt” cultural heritage that spanned the globe: They first saw Blue Velvet thanks to a “clandestine video-taping syndicate” in Florida, and when the friends created a zine called The Exploding Cat, they received fan mail from multiple continents (and prisons). The only influence on the 1992 Shirkers that rivals these intertwined subcultures and the Nouvelle Vague (one composition distinctly recalls 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her) is that of Georges Cardona, the man who came to direct that film.
Tan, Ng, and Siddique met Cardona, introduced as “a man of unplacable age and origin,” at a local class on film production, and it was Tan who found herself swept up in his icy eyes and cinematic enthusiasms and gave him the title of director, despite the suspicions of her friends. In the documentary, Tan paints her relationship with Cardona as close but not romantic. They road-tripped across America together, and Tan was slower than her friends to recognize his elusive nature: the vagueness of his biography, his claims of industry connections, and odd actions, like the day he shot an entire sequence of Shirkers without any film in his camera.
Much of the intrigue and momentum of Tan’s documentary is a consequence Cardona’s subsequent actions—he absconded with 70 canisters of 16mm film and disappeared—but she makes aesthetic decisions that ensure that Shirkers doesn’t feel beholden to one man’s influence. Even before Tan explains that Cardona hid the 1992 footage for decades, the first half of the documentary is almost exclusively composed of images from that shoot. Though Cardona remains a crucial aspect of the narrative, Tan doesn’t allow his actions to alter her vision. Her view of what the original Shirkers represented, and what her new film should be, proves surprisingly expansive.
Long after her teenage flirtation with filmmaking, Tan became a novelist, and her note-perfect narration belies an interest in thematic consistency as it circles around a handful of subjects: ideas about Singapore’s development from a tiny, verdant island into a hub of skyscrapers and global capital; the fallacy of artistic ownership in a fundamentally collaborative medium; the spectral but widely acknowledged presence of her teenage project in the annals of local film history; and Tan’s own evolution, moving from filmmaker to film critic to novelist and then finally back to filmmaker again. Tan sees her trajectory as a backward one, and her documentary shows much of the footage of her teenage passion project running in reverse, a technique that may help make the original Shirkers seem all the more striking.
If Shirkers is undoubtedly a sort of cinematic memoir, it’s also gratifyingly unselfish, an act of atonement after Tan’s ill-fated decision to hand a group project to a self-styled auteur. Ng and Siddique—now a filmmaker/activist and a Vassar professor, respectively—often chime in to disagree with Tan’s memories and assumptions, and clearly express their frustration with her faith in Cardona. Perhaps the documentary’s most startling moment occurs on Tan’s wedding day, when she repeatedly steps out of her moment in the limelight to criticize Ng’s videography. “You were an asshole,” Ng says, referring to her artistic partner’s approach on set, and if Shirkers is any indication, Tan has taken this criticism to heart. (The film’s credits include a full list of credits for the 1992 film.) Her long-delayed first feature is a generous and heartfelt portrait of the artist as a young punk.