' ' Cinema Romantico: Shirkers

Thursday, January 31, 2019


There is a sequence in “Shirkers”, a documentary whodunit of sorts when the director and narrator Sandi Tan seems on the verge of making a sleuthing breakthrough only to come up empty, finding no house where an address on an envelope says one should exist. She compares the moment to one in Michelangelo Antonioni’s avant-garde “Blow-Up” (1966) where the main character “returns to the scene of the crime and finds nothing,” a parallel Tan draws by showing herself in the present day discovering a bush and a large patch of empty grass where the house should be in lockstep with “Blow-Up’s” photographer David Hemmings circling a bush in a now empty park where a dead body once was. The similarity is self-evident and epitomizes both Tan and her movie’s worldview, one in which film frequently looms large, handy reference points though something even more, speaking for and defining people, like a crest of cinema. Though there are several fascinating relationships in “Shirkers”, it is this relationship to movies and how it simultaneously leads people astray and takes them where they need to go that lingers most.

“Shirkers” is a title with a double meaning, referring, obviously, to the documentary itself but also to the movie within the movie, also called “Shirkers” which Tan made as a teenager with her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique and a host of others, including a prominent player from Singapore’s underground art scene. If “Crazy Rich Asians” savored Singapore’s opulence, sticking close to the wealthy and the wealthiest of the wealthy, “Shirkers” presents the flip side to that record, illustrating how such wealth went hand in hand with a society so rigid that chewing gum was forbidden lest it foul the look of luxury. As such, archival footage of Jasmine chewing gum on camera is a little act that looms large, putting their rebellion into perspective. This wasn’t acting out against nothing, as so much youthful drama is, but against an emotionally and artistically repressive society, one where movies were outlawed, which led to them creating one. And much of the footage Tan employs here feels like a collage, evoking the punk zine she created, an onscreen scrap book of the totems these teenagers carried to get through.

Though “Shirkers” was born of a DIY aesthetic, it was helmed by Georges Cardona, who taught a film class in Singapore in which Tan was a student, becoming not just her mentor but an enigmatic presence in her life, taking her for long nighttime drives and even a road trip through America. Simply in who he is, a married man with a child paling around with teenage girls, you can tell right away that he portends tragedy which eventually bears out. Upon completion of the film, as Tan, Ng and Siddique return to college, Cardona intends to edit “Shirkers” into a finished product only to vanish, taking every canister of film with him, never to be heard from again.

If “Shirkers” is partially about trying to discover this lost film, it dawns on the viewer fairly quickly that the footage interspersed throughout the documentary is “Shirkers”, cluing you into the fact that Tan and her friends eventually recover it. That’s not a problem, reshaping the movie more as an investigation into Cardona himself, who, we learn, claimed to be the inspiration for the main character of Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, never mind telling the tall tale that he saw Jayne Mansfield decapitated at the time of her terrible death, as if attempting to insert himself into his favorite movies. Indeed, an old photo shows Cardona smoking a cigarette with a chill smile. He did not smoke, his ex-wife explains, reasoning that he was simply playing a character in the movie of his own mind.

In a way that parallels Tan herself, who draws inspiration from “Shirkers” with the road trip she takes with Cardona and who by playing herself in “Shirkers” is essentially creating a hyper-version of her own reality, rendering life as she wants it, or perhaps dreams of it, turning her index finger into a gun to shoot other characters down. Yet in re-tracing her steps, Tan essentially turns that “gun” on herself, thrusting who she was under the microscope and coming to discover she might not have been the person she thought she was, particularly where Ng was concerned, home movies of the two friends at the latter’s wedding proving particularly revealing if hard to watch.

In these dueling narratives between mentor and protégé, a paradox emerges, where movies are shown to have warped Cardona’s mind even as they are simultaneously shown to have helped inspire Tan to get out. And if movies are very much products of their time, as the footage of “Shirkers” the would-be feature go to show, they are also, when viewed through the lens of time, an avenue to other viewpoints, which is what leads to Tan’s self-reckoning. She deconstructs the myth of the magic of the movies not by denouncing it but by reorienting that magic into something more movingly practical.

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