What would you do if a work of art you had poured your heart, time, and money into just disappeared? Sandi Tan’s bracing documentary Shirkers tackles a series of interconnected mysteries that circle around this central question. Why did the film Tan wrote and starred in at age 19 (also called Shirkers) just vanish along with her mentor – also the film’s director – the much older George Cardona? Why did Tan and her friends, precocious teenagers in the buttoned-down society of 1990s Singapore, put so much trust in the shadowy, creepy Cardona in the first place? And, most importantly, how did they pick up the pieces of their life in the wake of that betrayal?
Tan pairs this busy story with a frenetic style, her constant, playful narration intoning over quick cuts and bright visuals. The style feels appropriate, not just because its energy keeps the plot humming along, but because there’s a kitchen sink aesthetic to the film that captures the feeling of the DIY youth culture in which she grew up. Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophia felt constrained by Singapore’s push for respectability, so they gravitated toward the world of punk and arthouse cinema, producing ‘zines and dreaming of shooting Singapore’s first great art film. From the available archival footage, it’s clear that the girls went about their business with verve, wit, and an anything goes attitude, and this playfulness seeps into Tan’s documentary.
But there’s a serious core to the film as well. Cardona casts a long shade over everything, even years after his death. Many teens crave mentorship, the feeling of being recognized by non-familial adults as worthy of time and effort; sometimes, though, teens latch on to untrustworthy mentors. I was one such teen, and Tan’s depiction of events rings true to my own experience. Though of course the image of a middle-aged man hanging around teenage girls immediately conjurs up thoughts of sexual misconduct, apart from one quickly abandoned pass at Tan Cardona never seemed interested in sex; what he craved was devotion and control on an emotional level. The adult Tan recognizes what her teenage self could not: that this deeply troubled man manipulated her for his own twisted satisfaction.
Yet there’s an aesthetic puzzle here as well. Why, having gone to the trouble of shooting an entire movie, did Cardona abscond with all the footage, yet preserve it instead of destroying it? Seventy cans of film, all carefully stored at each stop on Cardona’s wanderings (Australia, Seattle, Houston). Tan admits she cannot fully answer this, but she probes into Cardona’s past searching for answers even as ruminates on the impact of this traumatic event on her subsequent life.
As fascinating as this search is, my favorite aspect of Shirkers is the way Tan struggles to make peace with her past. She begins to realize, in the course of making the film, the way her own selfishness tore at her friendships with Jasmine and Sophia; she frequently chose Cardona over them and pushed recklessly to finish the film against their objections. While avoiding cheap redemption, Shirkers does suggest that we can heal long standing wounds if we embrace humility. Tan gradually reassesses her own precociousness, realizing just how often it slid over into abrasive, self-absorbed behavior. Jasmine and Sophia do not instantly forgive her, but there’s a sense that as she grows as a person those bridges will be rebuilt. In this Shirkers is both hopeful and truthful about the condition of young adulthood: we aren’t stuck (thank goodness!) being the same people we were in high school, and hopefully we learn in time to cling to the playful bravado of youth while smoothing out its rough edges.