#SGWatch4U is our screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.
The “lost film” or “lost episode” trope has become almost a goofy cliche in popular culture. There’s something to love-hate about the melodramatic unearthing of some prize footage; how it ends up bold and groundbreaking in comparison to the rest of the filmmaker or show’s body of work. Local filmmaker Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, which won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, completely quashes all prejudiced notions against that trope, for a multi-layered, standalone work of art.
The premise of Shirkers can at first seem garbled: An aspiring filmmaker makes a film with her friends in their youth, has their film teacher cum director run away with the footage, and finally, 25 years later, turns the found footage into a documentary—about the loss of the movie. But Tan is a born storyteller, and she manages to weave a tale of personal grief into a universal story of hope, supplemented with stunning visuals of a bygone Singapore that local audiences will, surely, devour voraciously.
Born and raised in Singapore, the 45-year-old who now lives in the States grew up in a period of uninspired local content. Singapore finding its feet post-independence meant the ‘80s saw no time or space for experimenting with art; till today much of Singapore’s mainstream film history begins with 1991’s Medium Rare. Thus Tan and her friends (Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey, key interviewees in this film) decide to make a groundbreaking movie, about a young female assassin who abducts children and kills with finger guns. Their vision is inspired; truly the original hipsters, they take their stylistic inspiration from ‘80s and ‘90s classics like Blue Velvet and Rushmore, and put together some genuinely bizarre mise-en-scene. They team up with their American mentor from film class, Georges Cardona who is twice their age—and who will eventually abscond with two months of hard work, and become the villain in their real-life narrative. (Ironically, he becomes the title of the movie.)
Siddique and Tan in the original Shirkers
Tan’s early aesthetic is visible even in this new Shirkers. Vividly processed colors and a unique style of lingering cuts and a snappy disappearing motif give the film an almost experimental quality to it. It toggles back and forth between her found footage and interviews she holds with friends and contemporaries in present-day; to fill in the gaps of footage, she inventively manipulates old photos to tell her story—sort of like digital scrapbooking.
If at first Tan’s story seems a little too specific to relate to, its visual content more than makes up for it. Early in the film she calls her original Shirkers “a time capsule of a Singapore that was both real and imaginary”—a phrase that beautifully mirrors this very documentary. Scenes of ‘90s Singapore like the Singapore-Malaya Railway and now-disappeared shops are juxtaposed with what stand in their place today. It’s nostalgia porn without being off-putting, since it was actually shot in that era.
It also never feels draggy or overly self-absorbed. Tan never just relies on the riveting visuals; the film also manages to have its sinister moments in discussing Cardona’s betrayal—stuff straight out of The Making of a Murderer. Eased along by Tan’s soothing narration, you follow her multi-layered story through its highs—that all-consuming, youthful excitement of embarking on your passion—and lows. You feel her pain through her loss—not because you too once lost 70 cans of footage, but because at one point in your life you’ve experienced that hopelessness in having your plans thrown off-track, and not knowing where you’re going. Everyone has.
Above all, Shirkers inspires. Eventually Tan has her lost film returned to her, but even if she hadn’t her original vision alone stirs admiration. To push the boundaries in a time and society where it wasn’t trending to be an outlier, all in the name of passion, is something no state-backed tourism campaign can ever manufacture. Beyond the artistic foresight, the resourcefulness of these 19-year-olds with a dream is inspiring—you cannot deny their practical achievements like negotiating for free film and camera equipment from Kodak; or setting up business meetings with important figures in the industry. It is no wonder all three will go on to become leaders in their own fields, despite sharing such a harrowing setback in their history.
Tan and her team are magnificent artists, so young then but so ahead of their time (as many of her newsmakers will vouch for in the film). Their artwork is indeed a lost piece of Singapore’s film history, and every Singaporean should be grateful for its return. Shirkers is a film for everyone, but most urgently for those with passion; the ones who despair in seeing their star flickering or who need a timely push forward to keep doing what they love. And you must, because otherwise you’d just be a shirker.
Shirkers will debut globally on Netflix on Oct 26.