Shirkers: My Own Private Singapore, by David Bax
To American viewers—especially the sort who are likely to find themselves watching a movie like Sandi Tan’s Shirkers—there will be something immediately familiar about a suburban teenager’s bedroom plastered with magazine cutouts of countercultural heroes, occupied by two friends, bonded by their love of indie movies and aspiring to someday be “the Coen sisters.” Yet there will also be something tantalizingly unexpected about the fact that these semi-affluent weirdoes are not in some small, Midwestern city but in early 1990s Singapore. The island city-state was not a major contributor to independent cinema of the era but Tan’s bittersweet delight of a documentary asks us to imagine an alternate history in which that wouldn’t have been the case, if only things hadn’t fallen apart.
Tan and her best friend Jasmine Ng, after growing disillusioned with Singapore’s punk scene (“I think we were too punk for them,” they observe, probably correctly), joined forces with another friend, Sophia Siddique Harvey, and dedicated themselves to making a feature length film, which Tan wrote and would star in. As director, they brought in their film instructor, Georges Cardona, a mysterious, Colombian-American expat who claimed to be the inspiration for James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which was not true but probably seemed like it might be because who on earth would lie about being that guy?). The film was to be called Shirkers. This new documentary with the same name is less a chronicle of the project’s making and unmaking and more a memoir of Tan’s young adulthood.
Tan’s joy in cinema is apparent in Shirkers’ sometimes collage-like construction. Strips of home movies, found footage and clips from the movie that never was run across the screen, sometimes backwards and upside down. Meanwhile, Singapore, from the grass to the rooftops, is painted in vibrant swaths of crayon colors, a child’s activity book laid over a whole city. The story Shirkers tells is sometimes sad and often infuriating but Tan never stops having fun just making a movie.
Young Tan’s obsession with Western movies was not out of place in Singapore (even if the particular movies she loved probably were), partially because there’s very little cinematic presence within the country. One of the briefest but most fascinating chapters of Shirkers attempts to place the young women’s abortive film in the small history of Singaporean movies. There’s 1978’s They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, 1992’s Medium Rare and 1999’s Eating Air (directed by Ng). We are treated to intriguing clips from all of these. Tan has a dreamer’s willingness to wonder how the course of Singaporean film might have been changed by Shirkers but also a realist’s awareness that the movie she made before she turned twenty might very well have found a home only in deserved obscurity.
Not to be a “the real Shirkers were the friends we made along the way” hack but the merits of the unfinished effort aren’t really the point here. Tan’s relationship with Ng and Harvey is what really shines through from a quarter century in the past. They’re still in touch to this day. Ng, in fact, in a present day interview, proves her closeness to Tan by lovingly pointing out to her, “You’ve always been an asshole.”
Which brings us back to Cardona. The young Tan once considered him her “best friend.” But, without giving too much away, he is the one who destroyed her dream in ways she probably would have seen coming if she’d been more than just a kid under the sway of a grown man and a habitual liar. And yet, the portrait of Cardona Shirkers is able to piece together is far more sympathetic and curious than it is spiteful. Chalk that up to Tan’s being a well-adjusted adult, probably thanks to having such good friends.