Who is Sandi Tan?

September 21, 2018

“I see it as a very strange and round-about happy ending,” said Sandi Tan at a screening of her new film, “Shirkers,” at Brandeis’ Wasserman Cinematheque on Sept. 16. Tan’s film is a winding, autobiographical cine-essay about a movie—her movie—that dramatically changed her life.

It was Singapore in the early 90s, and the small island nation didn’t have much of a film scene. In the face of increasingly strict and overbearing governmental policy—certain practices, such as chewing gum, were banned—director Sandi Tan and her other rebellious teenager friends found their outlet in counterculture, making their own zines and experimenting with filmmaking.

Because Singapore had virtually no film industry, when Tan and Co. began making an independent feature, it was special. Written, produced and starring Tan, “Shirkers” was about a sixteen-year old girl who murdered anyone she loved. It was way ahead of its time.

Shot on a shoestring budget, with the producers going to Kodak every few days to beg for free castoff film stock, the production became something of a local legend. When they finally finished, Tan and her friends had done the impossible: They created a movie with essentially no resources and formal training. Then they went their separate ways, back to universities across the globe.

But lurking behind the scenes was an oddball mentor figure: Georges Cardona, a man of dubious background and twice the age of the kids he was working with. He claimed that he inspired James Spader’s character in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He was obsessed with movies, especially the French New Wave—styling himself as a Laszlo Kovacs-type figure. After the shoot, Cardona, who directed the 1992 “Shirkers,” was in possession of all the footage.

I don’t want to divulge exactly what happened. The twisty mystery of why “Shirkers” was never edited and released is part of what gives the story of Tan’s new documentary film of the same name its charm. Suffice it to say that “Shirkers” was never released, and the resulting documentary, made twenty-five years later, explores that mystery.

Tan’s new documentary looks back at what happened—how the non-release of this film affected the life trajectories of everyone involved. She goes back and interviews her friends and investigates what happened to Georges Cardona and the film—asking especially why, after all that work, he stopped the movie from being made.

The shreds of “Shirkers” —the fiction film—that we get to see depict a personal perspective on a bygone Singapore. For better or worse, “Shirkers” is an autobiographical film, and the time capsule aspect is particularly compelling. Many of the places, like the Singapore-Malay railway, that were filmed back in the 90s aren’t there anymore. The film fragments we see are a time capsule, showing Tan and her country in a really personal, unique way. We get to see a lot of Tan playing the protagonist “S” in 1992, but I wished that the film would have given us a better sense of who she is now.

It’s here “Shirkers” isn’t entirely successful, simultaneously too close and too distant from its director to develop a sense of her character. I found myself asking, “Who is Sandi Tan?”

We see interviews with old friends that worked on “Shirkers,” in which they say things to Sandi—but now she’s almost always off camera, leaving herself out of a fascinating story that she’s at the center of. Tan got close to admitting as much, mentioning in the Q&A that an editor friend had told her to make the movie more personal and to film video diaries of herself throughout the process. We needed a third-party perspective of Sandi Tan, and the film suffers for it. There’s autobiographical voiceover from her—and glimpses of who she was in 1992, but Tan obscures herself in the present-day portions of the film. If the director hadn’t been in the audience that night, I don’t think I would have been able to get a good sense of what this journey meant to her.

“Shirkers” is set to hit Netflix on Oct. 26. It was kind of weird seeing the Netflix logo for a movie on the big screen, but it’s encouraging to see the streaming service investing in higher-quality films than most of the junk they’ve been pumping out. If you liked docs on Netflix like “Holy Hell,” “The Imposter,” or HBO’s “Tickled,” then “Shirkers” is for you.

Tan hinted at the end of the Q&A that she was in talks to do more stuff, and I’m interested in seeing what she comes up with. The film she set out to make in 1992 was groundbreaking, even if the one she made in 2018 wasn’t, and I’d like to see what she comes up with next.

Menu Title