This is probably the most celebrated “lost” film after Jodorowsky’s Dune, at least if you live in Singapore. Many local cineastes were expecting Shirkers to jump-start the nation’s indie film scene, even though it was produced by a small group of teenagers and their 30-something film-making teacher, Georges Cardona. Things did not pan out as they hoped when Cardona disappeared with all their footage. Twenty-five years later, Sandi Tan was reunited with the original 16mm footage, sans audio. We will probably never be able to see the film as Tan and her friends intended, but she subsequently repurposed the once missing video into Shirkers (trailer here), one of the most poignant documentaries of the year, which premieres this Friday on Netflix and also opens theatrically in New York.
The earnest nineteen-year-old Tan wore her early 1990s indie influences on her sleeve: Jarmusch, Tarantino, etc. She would be the first to admit her quirky and increasingly surreal serial killer road-trip movie was highly derivative of her heroes’ work. However, it was undeniably a Singaporean production. That alone made it special at the time. Looking back on the 1992 footage, it also would have been and sort of still is a time capsule document of a more traditional Singapore that no longer exists.
Somehow, Tan’s friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique allowed themselves to get caught up in her enthusiasm. Cardona served as director, while they filled just about every other role, including Tan playing the evil Amelie-like protagonist, “S,” which Ng and Siddique concede was probably a mistake in retrospect. Nevertheless, Tan and Ng willing sunk their personal savings into the production to cover a sudden financing gap. Naturally, they were all devastated when Cardona disappeared with their film, but it also forged an unusual bond between them.
Alas, Cardona is no longer with us (in the land of the living). In fact, his death was the catalyst for the partial rediscovery of Shirkers. Nevertheless, the film manages to partly explain what the heck was the deal with Cardona (but not entirely). Yet, despite the significant role he plays, the film is not about him. It is about Tan and Siddique and Ng. It is about Singapore at a time when you could still find old school colonial-era buildings and mom-and-pop establishments. It is about youthful idealism and an enduring love of cinema. Most of all it is about the special relationship shared by three friends who can truly drive each other to distraction.
As a documentary, Shirkers has mystery and cultural history elements, but it is also a long-deferred coming of age story. Tan digs pretty deeply into Cardona’s murky past, but she is even less sparing when examining her own life. She keeps peeling back the onion, producing a third act chocked full of epiphanies. Ultimately, it is shockingly poignant to fully understand how much the unfinished has meant to her, Ng and Siddique—and maybe even Cardona.