2019 Film Essays

Sandi Tan’s ‘Shirkers’ Is an Indie Filmmaking Dream Deferred

Shirkers is title to both an uncompleted Singapore-based road movie starring Sandi Tan that was shot in the summer of 1992 and the autobiographical nonfiction examination of that lost film. With the benefit of time, Tan looks back on her own experiences, constructing a reflective bildungsroman with the requisite excitement, heartache, friendship, loss and pain one expects from any great coming-of-age tale. As a 19-year-old on the island nation known more to outsiders for being cleaner than Disneyland than for any indie filmmaking scene, Tan joined forces with sisters-in-arms Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique to reach for cinematic glory. But after principal photography wrapped, a much older mentor named Georges Cardona disappeared with every can of the film.

How many movies have been lost or nearly lost to circumstances before a public release can provide closure for the anxious and expectant filmmaker? In some sense, Shirkers joins longstanding legends like Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, the Sex Pistols in Who Killed Bambi?, David O. Russell’s Nailed and Alfred Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope (just to name a few) as a broken dream that lives on in the what-might-have-been corners of the imagination. As is the case with Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind and Morgan Neville’s companion piece They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the journey almost always looms larger than the destination.

Tan astutely minimizes the mystery of Cardona, refusing to turn the attention of her story to a narcissistic user undeserving of the starring role. Instead, she investigates the memories of her friends, both of whom were as gutted as Tan by the betrayal perpetrated by Cardona. Like Rashomon, each woman remembers unique aspects of the Shirkers endeavor that conflict with some of Tan’s thoughts. Ng, without mincing words, accuses Tan of being an asshole. Tan runs with it, examining vintage video that corroborates the claim. That willingness to make a deep dive on pieces of the puzzle that still trigger raw emotions is in keeping with Tan’s collagist, cut-and-paste, DIY, punk rock ethos.

Tan is nothing if not gutsy, and like so many established celluloid heroes, she might have been practicing Academy Award acceptance speeches in the mirror before making anything of substance. She breathlessly identifies Rushmore and Ghost World as simpatico with Shirkers, juxtaposing rhyming shots to make a case for the hipster credibility of her unfinished opus. Lost synchronous sound recordings and mature judgment guided the decision to leave Shirkers a phantom. Like Tan, Ng and Siddique, we may never know why Cardona robbed his young collaborators of their commitment and hard work, even though a few people acquainted with Cardona offer tantalizing theories.

Along the way, Tan finds a sympathetic sharer in Stephen Tyler, another protege of Cardona similarly mistreated by the movie magpie. Tyler credibly surmises that Cardona’s sense of pride, entitlement and jealousy partly drove his cruelty. For example, Cardona began to claim that he was the inspiration for James Spader’s character Graham in Sex, Lies, and Videotape after Tyler and another mutual friend worked on Steven Soderbergh’s film. Shirkers brims with references and allusions to movies that aid Tan as she spins her story. Clips from Blue Velvet, Paris, Texas, Heathers, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Singapore’s own Cleopatra Wong and many others will be familiar to anyone who speaks the language of cinephilia.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997. 

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