Sandi Tan’s luminous and shape-shifting documentary Shirkers is a journey back in time through the 16mm reels and sinister true story of the long-lost indie movie of the same name that she shot in Singapore over 25 years ago.
It’s kind of fitting that this film lands on Netflix just prior to Halloween. A candy-hued doc about an idiosyncratic 1992 teen road movie might seem a long way from your typical horror flick, but one interviewee in the film speak of how it has given the original project an “afterlife” and Tan has herself described Shirkers ’18 as an “attempted exorcism.” An exorcism suggests a suitably malevolent possessive force and Shirkers doesn’t disappoint – its shadowy antagonist Georges is elsewhere compared to a vampire.
Throughout, the haunting vocals of singer Weish adorn the soundtrack accompanying the uncannily well-preserved celluloid images, which gives the film’s nostalgic premise a supernatural and ghostly aspect. Where Tan describes the process of making Shirkers as an exorcism (presumably of Georges), the final product is more akin to a séance, a communion with a lost soul keen to still be heard from beyond the veil.
That lost soul is the original Shirkers. Written by a 19-year-old Tan, produced by her friends Jasmine and Sophie, and directed by their American filmmaker mentor Georges, it was to be a Jarmuschian, Singaporean riff on The Catcher in the Rye – if Holden Caulfield was a female assassin. A host of non-professionals were roped into the cast and crew with Tan playing the enigmatic lead, ‘S’.
The production became almost mythological in itself, with these precocious teens breaking rules and telling a unique story with their own energy and determination. Only the film was never to see the light of day, as after the shoot wrapped Georges disappeared with all of the footage and no forwarding address. Instead, decades later, Tan was contacted by Georges’ widow and sent the 70 reels of perfectly preserved 16mm, sans audio.
From these, Tan exhumes the remains of Shirkers and fashions them into both a celebration of the lost work. She travels to speak to those involved, to hear their takes on the story – old friendships and frustrations loom large – weaving into them the stunning original images and a dynamic fanzine-esque aesthetic of animations and documents that reflect the counter-cultural milieu of the time.
Georges himself remains a peripheral and mysterious figure which can at time feels confounding – the fiery rage that his actions provoke while watching seem not to be reciprocated by the three women whose work was stolen. In fact, though, what Tan brilliantly does is hold back from letting the film become about Georges – he already stole Shirkers ’92, and it’s a testament that she doesn’t let him steal Shirkers ’18.
Instead, this is the story of three young women who wanted to make a movie and who have since gone on to work various in film and its periphery. Their interactions are by turns poignant and funny and it pulls no punches regarding mistakes that were made and internal tensions that arose. It is also the story of a film that seems ahead of its time.
In her narration, Tan recalls seeing the film reflected back at her in later western films like Ghost World and many of the tropes seen in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre. Sadly, although it lives on in urban legend, the fresh look and feel of Shirkers has largely been lost to Singaporean cinema to which it may have provided a colourful, pop-inflected shot in the arm back in the early 1990s.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson