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Shirkers (2018) (North Bend Film Festival)

Netflix // Unrated // October 26, 2018
List Price: Unknown

Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 27, 2018 | E-mail the Author
In 1992, aspiring filmmaker Sandi Tan enlisted her friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, to help her do something wildly ambitious: shoot an independent feature film in Singapore over a college break. Tan wrote the screenplay, a mood piece about a 16-year-old assassin (a role Tan would end up playing herself) drifting around, picking off a predetermined number of targets one by one. Their director would be Georges Cardona, the American filmmaker who ran the film class all three attended before college. During the course, he took a liking to Tan and Ng, and took a cross-country road trip of America with Tan that clearly helped inspire the film, entitled Shirkers. Filming the movie was an ordeal, but the foursome managed to complete the film on schedule, with Cardona taking the film to America to get it processed, with plans for Ng to edit the movie over a future break. Instead, Cardona disappeared without a word, creating a bizarre, traumatic mystery that haunted Tan and her companions for 25 years.

Shirkers -- the 2018 documentary by Tan on her history as an artist, friendship with Ng, relationship with Cardona, and the disappearance of the film -- is a miraculous movie, a raw and moving reclamation of everything that Cardona mysteriously tried to take away from her. On a basic level, the documentary investigates the flabbergasting artistic crime and works through Tan's feelings at having something so precious stolen from her, but the nature of the crime makes it a perfect stepping stone for a greater exploration of women's artistry, the use of art as a reflection of emotion and personality, and even as a side-route into the #MeToo conversation about the impact that the crimes of abusive men have on the careers of the women they've targeted.

The first chunk of the film explores Tan's childhood and her friendship with Ng. If Tan's wryly funny narration isn't endearing enough, the candid friendly sniping between Tan and Ng in Ng's 2018 interview footage will certainly win viewers over. Tan is blessed with a voluminous archive of the creative outlets that she and Ng had as teenagers, including issues of a wild and wonderful zine packed with elaborate collages and lovingly scrawled text blocks called "The Exploding Cat," and handwritten letters where they commit to becoming "the Coen Sisters." Tan talks about her bootleg video business that allowed her to see avant-garde filmmaking like David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, and how she and Ng bonded over these kinds of renegade visions. Frankly, this section alone might make the movie a must-see; it's the kind of celebration of women's passion for unique, bizarre, cutting-edge art and creativity that rarely gets celebrated.

Enter Georges Cardona. An oddly unplaceable man with a wife and child he seems free to ignore in favor of spending time with Tan and Ng, he nonetheless possesses the kind of film knowledge that Tan seems to thirst for. He tells them that he was the inspiration for James Spader's character in Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which impresses them even if they don't necessarily believe it. (Although it would be easy to view Cardona's attention to Ng and especially Tan as somehow sexual, Tan notes that aside from one uncomfortable moment where he asked her to touch his belly, he never made a move on her.) Cardona is key to encouraging Tan to write and film Shirkers, creating two camps in the production, with Cardona and Tan on one side, and Ng and Siddique on the other. The struggle of making the film puts strains on Tan's friendship with Ng and Siddique (Tan has Ng read some of her production diaries out loud), but they all seem conscious of the weight of the opportunity -- very few independent productions were ever shot in Singapore at the time -- and power through.

And then: nothing. Cardona and the movie disappear for over two decades, during which Ng progresses through the film industry, Siddique turns to teaching, and Tan struggles, becoming an awful film critic (her own appraisal), then returning to film school before switching gears and moving to novels, where she held all the control. One of the most compelling parts of Shirkers crops up here: the "pangs" of her missing movie she felt watching films like Rushmore and Ghost World. Siddique touches on this as well, discussing the hole in Singapore film history left behind by the ghost of Shirkers. Tan and her film are a direct victim of Cardona's actions, but Cardona's negative impact is much wider: whether the film was successful enough, its mere existence would've meant something for Tan, Ng, and Siddique's careers, the careers of other women looking to get into filmmaking (especially in Singapore), and other members of the cast and crew. It's all hypothetical, but who's to say we wouldn't have young filmmakers now inspired by Tan and her work had Shirkers been released properly?

Yet, the documentary Shirkers is not a lament, but something cathartic, an insistent proclamation by Tan (and her friends) that the movie existed, that it was real, that their achievement mattered. Tan takes the remnants of what that film might've been and builds something new from it, taking back what Cardona took away. The way she pastes documents, letters, and extensive home video footage together into a collage of memories and moments (such as a hilarious but completely irrelevant blip of Cardona acquaintance Stephen Tyler jumping at the unexpected sight of his own cat) recalls her zines. Her interviews with the other people who knew Georges and fell under his same spell (including Cardona's wife, who is kept off-camera but whose voice can be heard during an in-home interview and a car ride around Cardona's home of New Orleans) are warm and open. The old Shirkers may never be, but the new Shirkers is its own triumph, commemorating the movie that was lost by creating something new. One of the best movies of 2018.

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