Shirkers begins and ends with a saying.
“There are movers, there are shakers, and then there are shirkers”, director Sandi Tan narrates. As we will soon come to learn, the shirkers are also often the most interesting. Within its 97-minute runtime, Tan’s debut film introduces us to one of the most puzzling true mysteries–and psuedo-biographies of a shirker–that I’ve ever seen.
Shirkers is a documentary about a movie that Tan and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey filmed back in 1992. Aided by their charming film teacher, the American Georges Cardona (and Tan’s self-proclaimed best friend), the four set out to make a road trip movie called Shirkers that was inspired by classic films (like Jean Luc-Goddard’s “Breathless” or David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”) set in Singapore, a country with a tiny independent film scene at the time. Tan was the screenwriter and the lead actress. As she puts it, “Sophie was the producer, Jasmine was the editor, and Georges was the director.” But after the painstaking process of shooting and wrapping up the production process, the girls left all the completed footage to Cardona while they went off to college, only to never hear from him again. In an instant, Shirkers was taken away from the three teenagers, with no explanation from Cardona himself. But why?
Tan’s documentary tries to answer that question by interviewing her now adult friends and Cardona’s close associates 26 years later. It’s through these interviews that Tan slowly peels away at the layers of Cardona’s madness, revealing blatant clues about him that somehow went unnoticed during production. One prime example of this is that during the filming process, Sophie revealed the crew went the whole day rehearsing a scene only to have Cardona admit that he ran out of film within the first few takes. In another, Tan recalls him telling her to build a large contraption on a hillside, even though it wasn’t in the script. Towards the end of production, Tan even recounts a time when Cardona opens the camera mid-shoot, revealing an empty film cartridge, almost directly mocking her. Yet production continued without anybody speaking up, as if nothing was amiss.
What is even more peculiar is the fact that the footage from the film does exist despite all of these “mishaps”. We see it sprinkled throughout the documentary (the footage used in the film are all taken from the original Shirkers since it was eventually found; they are not re-enactments). Charming, original, and childish, the original Shirkers looked impressive and destined for cult-fandom. Cardona himself even commented that he had loved the film’s script and that he wanted to get it ready for Cannes. So why did he do what he did? Even by the end of the documentary, after Tan has presented all the evidence, there’s no definitive answer–we can only speculate on what went on through Cardona’s head.
Shirkers, then, is not a film for viewers who enjoy characters who follow a linear line of reasoning. These are advanced mind-games. Just like the film that they were trying to make (which featured the 16-year-old main character going from place to place killing people and collecting random people willy-nilly), there is no logical rhyme or reason to Cardona’s actions–or even those actions of Tan at the time. She had noticed the signs, yet nothing was done to prevent this outcome.
In a sense, Shirkers then becomes a redemption piece, allowing Tan to both mythologize Georges Cardona’s eccentricities and reflect upon the kind of person she was back when she was 16. A sizeable portion of the film is dedicated to her own upbringing, giving us a meta perspective into who the narrator herself is. In one of the film’s many interviews, Jasmine even looks off-screen behind the camera and tells Tan directly: “You were an asshole”. Reluctantly, she agrees. It soon becomes clear how Tan and Cardona became such great friends in the first place: it was her quirky nature and drive that drew herself to him at that age, while Cardona preyed on her naivete.
I believe that is precisely what makes Shirkers such a great watch. There’s an interesting dynamic between Tan and every single person surrounding her, Cardona and otherwise. Without realizing it, Tan herself becomes a character just as interesting and complex as Cardona himself. Even though the film is told through Tan’s perspective, she’s fair to the facts: each of the interviews give a new insight into this multifaceted story, and it’s clear that it’s one that has haunted every single person involved after all these years. It recaptures that spark that probably would have made the original 1992 Shirkers a hit… if it would have ever been made.
In all its glory, Shirkers is better than any fiction film that you’re bound to watch. The mystery, the suspense, and the thrill–it’s all there. And it’s as they all say: the truth is stranger than fiction.
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.