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Doc Corner: The Thrilling Failure of 'Shirkers'

By Glenn Dunks

Apologies once again for the recent absense, but working 12-to-15-hour days in an office somewhat curb one's ability to sit down and write reviews. However, we're returning to regularly scheduled programming with one of the best documentaries of the year.

Documentaries about moviemaking aren’t uncommon. We see several released each year, usually offering creative insight and historical context to works of art both great and terrible – and in the case of those like American Movie even surpassing the reputation of the movie they’re about. Documentaries about failed movies are less common, although no less fascinating and often allow their subject to attain something of a mythical status. The latest addition to this sub-genre of non-fiction is Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, a thrillingly assembled combination of cinematic mystery, sombre tribute, and aching paean to lost potential.

“Shirkers” is not only the name of the documentary, but also the name of the film that Tan made in 1992 with her friends Jasmine Ng, Sophia Siddique and the mysterious older man named George Cardona. The original Shirkers was to be the first Singaporean film directed by a woman and was a radical change from the sort of film that the island nation was typically known for like 1972’s They Call Her Cleopatra Wong.

The movie, a road trip over a country that takes only 40 minutes to drive across was meant to be an artful mood-piece about a 16-year-old girl named S who shoots her piano teacher and flees. Tan also wrote and starred in the film, a seemingly experimental and feminist riff on 1991's Medium Rare  that could have propelled her to international success – the likes of which have not really been attained by a Singaporean filmmaker until recently with the likes of Eric Khoo, Kristen Tan, Anthony Chen and Yeo Siew Hua.

To say what became of the Shirkers reels would be to ruin part of the documentary’s surprise. Although like another 2018 non-fiction mystery, Three Identical Strangers, audiences will no doubt be suspecting something spectacularly bizarre. And that’s certainly true here, but I felt the revelations that come throughout the final two acts took a backseat of Tan’s directorial efforts: both in the film we are watching now and in the footage we see from the original 1992 production. The original footage is quite something, truly, and here Tan has taken what remains of her almost three-decade-old movie and manipulated it into a hypnotic work of crafted collage. Infusing the documentary’s narrative with her own memories as well as those of Ng (herself a filmmaker) and Siddique (now Chair of Film at Vassar College), she reverses footage, interpolates it, recuts it and reframes its context to tell the making of Shirkers as well as the story of her own life.

It is rare that an artist allows themselves such a public interrogation of failure. Usually for a filmmaker it begins with a defiant defence before mutating into a sort of publicly face-saving irony or good-natured admission. Not so here; Tan’s film remains a work of lore among the Singaporean film community, many of whom (like Philip Cheah) featured both then as actors and now as talking heads. As Tan went off to become a well-regarded film critic and then a student of film at Columbia, it’s easy to hear the resigned tone in her voice and see the pangs of sadness on her face as Shirkers proves with more and more certainty that her life could and should have turned out much different.

The only truly disappointing part of the movie was that when it was over, we were not able to then watch Sandi Tan’s original movie. Will she complete it? Will it ever see a traditional light of day? One can only hope. We did ultimately get to see Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground so there is still hope. As the film suggests, movies like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World occupy similar milieus and thanks its own clear influences from the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and the American independent film movement of the late 1980s and early ‘90s more broadly, would have clearly found a role for itself in the cinematic conversation. Particularly within the context of Asian cinemas, which for a time was still seen almost exclusively for action movies and historical pictures and less about contemporary explorations of youth with the stylistic temperament to match (something Wong Kar-Wai had a strong hand in steering away from with pictures like 1988’s As Tears Go By and 1994’s Chungking Express in particular – at least in the international arthouse scene).

The bittersweet irony of Shirkers is that while it is a wonderful film and a wonder to watch unfold, Sandi Tan is only now gifting us with her (technically) first feature film. What could have come of her career is one of Shirkers’ over-arching themes, but it’s also about how men manipulate women, about female friendships, about the creative process, and about the enduring need to find out the truth about the mysteries that pervade our minds. It’s something remarkable. A film that takes the trauma of failure and turns it into a deeply personal feat of entertaining success.

Release: Currently streaming globally on Netflix.

Oscar Chances: We speak time and time again about Oscar's odd ambivalence to documentaries about movie-making. Could the mystery element of this steer them away from that particular bias? I'd like to say yes, but its unique form could send them back in the opposite direction. An interesting wildcard.

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Reader Comments (3)

I felt that Tan's obvious skill at creating a collage with dreamlike qualities (somewhat similar to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation) actually hindered the exposition of this film. It just ultimately seemed a little too self-centered. And to be frank, boring.

December 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

“Shirkers” really is one of the most delightful films of the year, a satisfying mystery, a wittily awkward coming-of-age story, and an intimate and complex portrait of would-be artistic bohemians in a country where it was illegal to chew gum. Sandi Tan has a gift for characterization, not only of herself and her friends, who are too vivid to be mere victims, but of her antagonist, whose personality and motives are deftly, even humanely, depicted.

December 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDavid W.

Hi Glenn, I'm fr SG, so thank for the shout-out to a SG film! 😁

Juz to clarify the myth. It's not illegal to chew gum in SG, u'll juz b fined if u spit it out on the street..technically the sales o chewing gum is banned in SG, but tt haven stop pple fr getting supplies fr oseas.

Back to Shirkers, I thot Netflix is a wonderful platform for this quirky lit cult gem which imo will most probably die in relative obscurity had it been released back in 1992.

December 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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