Netflix UK film review: Shirkers
The artist as a young woman10
The director as an adult10
The mythology of a cult classic10
James R | On 25, Oct 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
Cast: Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng
In 1992, Sandi Tan and two friends made a cult classic of modern Singaporean cinema. Or, at least, they would have, if their film wasn’t stolen from them. The trio found their filmmaking dream taken away by Georges Cardona, their enigmatic collaborator from the USA. A tutor, friend, and fellow artist, he was their trusted confidante and creative partner… until he vanished with all of their 16mm stock. Shirkers is Tan’s quest to find out what happened.
It sounds like a niche premise for a film, and that’s precisely why Shirkers is such a dazzling, intoxicating watch: the movie is unapologetically personal and dizzyingly post-modern, a meta-detective puzzle that combines intertextual, internal and inspirational threads to weave something entirely unique. After all, when was the last time you saw a making-of documentary about a film that doesn’t exist?
The fact that Shirkers actually did, at one point – and still might – adds a powerful pang to the whole tale. We begin with the young Sandi as she, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique set out to realise their dreams, caught up in the charm of the experienced older man Georges, whose allure is inseparable from the excitement of filmmaking. But that naive youth filled with black market VHS tapes grows into something more painful, as her dream is dismantled by Georges’ disappearance. And then, out of the blue, Sandi finds herself reunited with the footage, but even then, victory is tempered with disappointment: the tape may be back in her possession, but none of the sound is intact.
Tan directs her journey exquisitely, with an eye for capturing inner emotions on the big screen; she sweeps us from the infectious energy of a young creative to the tragedy of someone haunted by the spectre of what could have been. She stitches everything together with an inventive, playful charm that echoes her teenage self, inserting footage from Shirkers throughout, accompanied by vivid visual trickery, Ishai Adar’s swooning music and insightful interviews – including with Jasmine, who still harbours some prickliness towards Sandi for her behaviour when they were kids.
The result is a gorgeous ride through human hope and imagination: you’ll smile, as young Sandi and Jasmine describe themselves as the “Coen Sisters”, you’ll laugh, as Jasmine writes letters to potential financiers pretending to be an adult, and you’ll gasp in admiration as catharsis slowly emerges from these unusual fragments. But underlying that impeccable presentation and pacing is the hugely compelling narrative of one woman reclaiming her own story, her own work, and her own voice, assembling not just an answer to the mystery that plagued her formative years, but also a new film. Georges, she observes, was a man who defined himself through movies and actors, even claiming he inspired James Spader’s character in Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It’s only fitting then, that, Shirkers should tap directly into the mythologising power cinema holds – as Tan deconstructs the celluloid identity of one false legend, you can sense her crafting a cult classic for real. She once tried to write Shirkers’ story down as a book, she reveals halfway through, but it’s only now, on screen, that the unfinished film finds a timeless new form, in an empowering act of self-expression and course correction that nobody else can take away.