There’s a quote that’s long been attributed to Jean-Luc Godard about how “Every film is a documentary,” and that seems more applicable to Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers” than most. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily referring to the nonfiction film that Tan has made in the present with that title, but the film of the same name she made as a 20-year-old with friends in her native Singapore in the 1990s, an act of rebellion in a country known for its strictness. (It was around this same time the American teenager Michael Fay garnered international attention for being caned for vandalism.) Fittingly for this analogy, Tan was inspired to make the original “Shirkers” in part by the French New Wave – as well as David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” which she had smuggled into the country via her cousin in Florida — and wanted to see if she could make something similar in a place where such cultural expressions were rare.
Indeed, Tan has made something rare and quite special with “Shirkers,” it has just taken some time to get seen, with the explanation of why part of what makes the documentary that just premiered at Sundance so remarkable. In looking back on her first film and all that she personally invested into it from the vantage point of everything that’s come after, Tan has a unique perspective on her formative years as a person and as an artist, able to appreciate all the fresh ideas she had when she was younger and what effect the disappointment of seeing them not always come together has had on her. It isn’t just Tan who speaks with refreshing candor about the experience of making “Shirkers,” but fellow film students Jasmine Ng and Sophie Harvey, who worked on the film’s crew alongside her. “Our passion and earnestness come through,” says Harvey, who readily admits of the film, “The plot was immaterial. It was a mood piece.”
At the time of its conception, the narrative “Shirkers” had become a cause celebre in Singapore, where Tan, Ng, and Harvey mobilized the underground artist community, which Tan had entered as a rock critic for the alternative publication The Big O and a zine of her own she and Ng published called “The Exploding Cut.” An artist’s eye proves invaluable to “Shirkers,” as one begins to see footage of Singapore, a place rarely seen outside of the curated promotional materials that come from a tourist bureau, in all its frenzied glory and while Tan was intent on tapping into the surreal, it’s fascinating as a document of life in the country when the only other film ever produced there had been a supernatural murder mystery made just before called “Medium Rare.” Images of Tan and a co-star walking idly down a highway with no cars in either direction and scenes set inside grocery stores feel alive in ways that will likely be lost in other historical texts.
One can understand why there was so much excitement around Tan’s screenplay for “Shirkers,” not only because of the visually evocative scenes you see from it, but because it’s evident from the doc she’s a masterful storyteller. Thanks to the nifty, handcrafted-feeling montages that portray her youthful interests and tender narration, the film is enormously engaging well before a central story actually presents itself, but once one does, it becomes unshakeable. This takes hold once you learn of George Cardona, an enigmatic filmmaker who came to Singapore to be a film teacher after being part of the Louisiana film scene. Perhaps the most enthusiastic to make “Shirkers” when Tan was his film student asking for his advice, Cardona inserted himself into the role of director and becomes integral to why the narrative film was completed but never actually released, turning Tan’s documentary into an enthralling detective story with twists and turns that continually surprise.
Being a writer, Tan not only poured herself into all her correspondence with Cardona, as well as everyone else involved with the production of “Shirkers,” but couldn’t help but keep as much of it as she could, infusing her memories with vitality as if they just happened, and poetic both in prose and in cinema, it’s a memoir filled with beauty even as it recounts a tale that becomes almost tragic. While the fact that the original “Shirkers” was never released publicly may have left Tan feeling as if she wasn’t a filmmaker, there’s no denying it now, either in fact or in skill. “Shirkers” is an extraordinary work of art, every bit as inspiring as anything that led Tan to make a film in the first place.
“Shirkers” shows at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd at 10 p.m. at the Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City, January 23rd at 9:45 p.m. at the Broadway 3 in Salt Lake City, January 25th at 8:30 a.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City and January 26th at 3:15 p.m. at the Holiday 2.