A shirker is someone who runs away from responsibilities, something I consequently became when I experienced an otherworldly form of escape in Sandi Tan’s mind blowing documentary film, Shirkers. The one hour, 36 minute documentary, labeled a “punk feminist documentary gem” by Vox Media, unfolds into a gripping story of Tan’s journey as she recovers 70 film cans that were taken from her possession. While we get a glimpse into beautiful shots of the salvaged indie film produced by Tan and her friends in the summer of 1992, the mystery behind these lost tapes were, to me, far more unsettling than the weirdly creepy Halloween decorations on the second floor of Maryland Hall.
To understand the intricate plot of Shirkers, we must first begin with a bit of context. Sandi Tan grew up in Singapore as a child with an unhinged imagination, one that manifested in her love for ‘70s and ‘80s films like They Call Her Cleopatra Wong. Her fascination with film, however, evolved into something bigger as she envisioned that one day she too would make a movie of her own. Her passion happened to coincide with the arrival of George Cardona, an American filmmaker intent on sharing his expertise with students in Singapore.
Under the direction of Cardona, Tan began to screenwrite Shirkers, seeking guidance from a few other classmates, including Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. What they created was raw, original and definitely unconventional — it was essentially the story of a 16-year-old serial killer named “S,” who ventures out on a quest to find five people to take into another world, wherever that may be. In a loosely fitted, collared, coral colored blouse and short, brown trousers, “S,” played by Tan herself, walks around with an old suitcase, exploring different corners of Singapore.
At first Cardona is a mentor to the students, but behind his presence are multiple facades and a man with unexplainable intentions. Before Jasmine and Sophia left Singapore at the end of the summer, the girls and their crew ambitiously finished filming. Cardona was then expected to take the films, edit them and distribute the final cut. The version of Shirkers that we actually get is inundated with behind the scenes footage showing Jasmine in her edgy bob cut, hitting the clapperboard while rebelliously chewing on gum (Singapore enforced a chewing gum ban in 1992). At one point the soundless clapperboard — soundless for a reason that is later explained — initiates a switch from the grainy image of Tan in her circular spectacles to a path that spirals down a rabbit hole. The crux of the mystery is no longer centered around the adventures of “S” but rather, the more confounding question — why did Cardona take the 70 film cans that he promised to edit, and why did he never give them back?
Twenty five years later, with Jasmine now a filmmaker and social activist in Singapore, Sophie a film professor at Vassar College, and Cardona with the reputation of a man who led a perplexing life until his death, Tan confronts a reality she has since avoided. After the disappearance of the film, Tan almost seemed to sequence her life in reverse order, going from being a self-made screenwriter to a film critic and finally a film student at Columbia University. But by taking us back in time, she rekindles the youthful spirit that existed when she was 19, and Shirkers becomes a more engrossing story about her original creation, exposing new truths about who the Cardona she believed she knew was.
In order to avoid spoiling Tan’s discoveries, I will stray from discussing any further details, because the only way to appreciate the whimsical narrative and alluring cinematography is to see it for yourself. If there’s one more thing to add, it’s that the film provides an intense, nostalgic flashback to Singapore in the ‘90s, one that you cannot get from a summer box-office hit like Crazy Rich Asians, which is what people now most likely associate Singapore with. I believe that if you want to showcase diverse talent as current Hollywood suggests, it must begin by acknowledging types of talent that are rarely seen in mainstream media, like the ones locked up inside a group of creative girls in the summer of 1992.