Patrick Preziosi on Sandi Tan’s ‘Shirkers’ (2018)
Even as film history expands with every passing year, by way of new restorations, director’s cuts, rediscovered classics, and recovered lost projects, Sandi Tan’s Shirkers still remains something of an anomaly amongst a sea of “new” old films. The documentary’s title is shared with another film, a Singaporese road-movie undertaken by Tan and friends in 1992 under the enigmatic-cum-spiteful eye of the American Georges Cardona. Cardona was introduced to Tan and friends through a film class he taught at the Substation Arts Centre, but never relinquished the canisters for the completed film, fading back into the ether from which he materialised. The footage was only rightfully returned to Tan following Cardona’s death. Instead of trying to assemble takes more than twenty years old (lacking an audio track, no less), Tan uses the footage to capture a specific time and place among a group of motivated and precocious friends, in effect tracing where it all went wrong at the hands of one they initially idolised.
The original Shirkers footage itself is something to behold, a candy-coloured trip across a country which only takes forty minutes to get across, indebted to the independent cinema of the ’70s and ’80s, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders especially. However, it is steeped in cinematic history, recasting the Nouvelle Vague and Touki Bouki (1973) against the backdrop of a country whose film industry is nearly non-existent. In it, Tan plays S., who kidnaps children, kills piano teachers, and makes her way through Singapore, in effect fulfilling its road-movie aspirations. As many Singaporese cinephiles say throughout, it would’ve been a defining cinematic moment.
The first half of the documentary possesses a handmade quality, Tan’s upbringing being chronicled through zines, letters, polaroids, cassette recordings, and the Shirkers footage, playing out like one of her beloved collages. It feels lovingly crafted, the more straightforward, “talking head” elements buoyed by the warm archival footage and documents. Such warmth, however, is disrupted by Cardona, whose behaviour grows more malicious and manipulative as the shoot continues: intimidating a male friend who’d volunteered to do the soundtrack, not informing the crew the camera was jammed, shooting entire scenes without even loading film in the first place.
Cardona is less an actual man than a collection of loose ends, and soon the documentary segues from Shirkers to Cardona himself, as Tan attempts to piece together the personal history of such a confounding figure; perhaps it’s the sexual advance Tan ignored while the two road-tripped across the United States, or maybe he just got his kicks from cutting projects off at the knees. Later on, Tan connects with Stephen Tyler, another victim of the Cardona charm, which also resulted in film missing from Tyler’s own project
Cardona isn’t so much a fascinating subject as he is a villainous one; conversations with his ex-wife seem to hint at some long-repressed trauma, and no one exactly seems to know where he came from. It’s as if he existed only to exact his sabotaging will on the unwitting, his past checkered with near-delusions and obvious lies (he saw Jayne Mansfield’s head roll by his car, he is the inspiration behind James Spader’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape). Unfortunately, this is when Tan hits a speed bump, forgoing the established poetic style unique to the documentary format, instead opting for what feels like a true-crime special. Its aimlessness isn’t exactly rewarded by dredging up more questions than Tan can provide answers for.
Even as the back half begins to fizzle out into expected sentimentality, there is a moment of deserved catharsis reserved for the credit sequence, in which Tan’s name appears as writer, director and producer (her friends also involved in the production get their due as well). As documentary filmmaking grows increasingly morally questionable as the years go on, Shirkers is an at least brave, if not always successful, departure. Old wounds are reopened — Tan’s one friend, Jasmine Ng, uses the opportunity to point out behaviour that makes/made her “an asshole” — without ever attempting any sort of omniscient or objective viewpoint. Tan’s vision is intensely personal, a thrillingly subjective, first-person account of an event which was undeniably a traumatic turning-point for all involved.
Streaming on Netflix now.