The Pitch: Singapore, 1992. Sandi Tan, a young artist, and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey came together to make a movie. After years of trying to break into the boys’ club of Singapore’s underground art scene, the DIY collective began work on Shirkers, a hyper-experimental feature about memory, aging, innocence lost, violence, and a great deal more. They did this with the help of a mysterious cinephile named Georges Cardona, who would one day disappear into the ether with the entirety of Shirkers in his possession. As Tan journeys to figure out what happened to Cardona and to the film, she’s faced with the failings of her own past, the dramatic changes in Singapore, and the pain of artistic non-fulfillment alike.
What is a Film?: Shirkers is the kind of adventurous filmmaking that renders so many other bone-dry documentaries all the more tedious by comparison. Sandi Tan’s film manages to be so much more than a chronicle of an already incredible story, the story of a lost could-have-been arthouse masterpiece brought to vivid, reconstructed life. It’s adept at being that as well, but Tan quickly establishes that Shirkers the documentary will be every bit as ambitious as Shirkers the film once was. It’s at once a home movie, a portrait of a changing Singapore before it changed even more dramatically in the following years, and a story of a lost film. It’s also the story of the making of that film, the ways in which it affected the principals involved, and a portrait of Sandi Tan the artist in her later years. It’s often most of those things at once, and it’s a testament to Tan’s assured direction that Shirkers always holds firm.
It’s the kind of film that interrogates itself even as it’s unfolding, and if this occasionally lends Shirkers an unwieldy quality, Tan likewise uses that winding shapelessness to compelling effect. Some of the most compelling moments come not from the “story” itself, which is wild enough, but in Tan wrestling with the effect that both time and her own approach to art have had on the people close to her. It’s not often that you see a documentary feature one of its subjects interrogating the intentions of its filmmaker, but part of “finishing” Shirkers involves the same kind of fearlessness that led to its creation. If that means Tan swinging the moral pendulum back in her own direction, so be it.
The Trials of Memory: Shirkers may spend a great deal of its runtime dealing in the same kind of genre-bending collage that Tan and Ng made their zine signature for years, but it’s also a thoroughly gutting story of bygone dreams and human cruelty at its center. Accordingly, this finds its way into the very rhythms of the movie; from the second Cardona appears onscreen, it’s clear that something is wrong with him. Eventually Shirkers gets around to exploring just how wrong it was, but long before then, there’s an undertone of Tan discovering a new version of her own life’s history as she goes along.
It’s this challenge of memory that really elevates Shirkers into something special, because as Tan comes to understand, memory is never set in stone. It warps, and bends, and smooths out with time. We hang on to physical curios to remind us of the things we might lose otherwise, but sooner and later they all go. At least, that is, until something reaches out from the past and drags you back with such sterling clarity that you’re left stunned by how much you missed the first time around.
The Verdict: You’ve likely gleaned by now that Shirkers isn’t your everyday documentary about movies, or movie about movies. Yet in its singular way, it’s also a great entry into that same canon, a movie about the type of imagination capable of creating a great movie. It’s about how reality invades our dreams, and how the people we trust teach us to be less trusting as we get older. Tan plays these themes out with a rare emotional honesty, never allowing the fact that it’s a deeply personal work to prevent her from indicting herself alongside any of the other key players involved.
Shirkers is an unbelievable true story, but it’s also one far too common to the world. As women continue to find more and more space to tell these stories, it won’t be surprising if we see many more kind of like it: a young woman has an incredible artistic idea, and a man figures out a way to interrupt and overwhelm it. There are likely thousands upon thousands of untold stories similar to Tan’s, and thanks to this film, at least one is out there. But while the truth is in pursuit, at long last, there are so many films like Shirkers, the Lynchian 1992 punk rock film from Singapore, that’ll just never see the light of day, for one reason or another. To diminish somebody’s art is to diminish their very existence, and although we always talk about the importance of upholding that art, we always seem to keep doing it anyway.
Where’s It Playing?: Shirkers is available to stream now on Netflix.