‘Shirkers’ proves thrilling and heartfelt at True/False

“Shirkers” tells the story of Sandi Tan and her friends making a movie and then rediscovering stolen footage 25 years later.

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Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is a beautiful showing of passion and loss that provides real commentary on personal struggles and relationships.

Shirkers is a documentary that follows three young women in Singapore through their adult lives. Tan and her childhood best friend, Jasmine, rage against the norm and “devour” what the people around them ignore, eventually becoming prominent figures in the punk movement. Their relationship isn’t constricted to a false sense of perfection, and for that, the documentary is all the better. They start off as enemies, at least from Tan’s perspective, and eventually become allies in their fight against the ordinary.

Their friendship is born in a time when Singapore was particularly uptight. Even chewing gum is banned, and parents hold extremely high expectations. To juxtapose this comes the force of their friendship and the birth of their zine, The Exploding Cat, which gains considerable popularity. Their personalities make for a relationship that is both delightfully comedic and inspiring in a way that they push each other to creative ingenuity.

The way Tan intertwines both comedy and mystery with heartfelt personal narratives makes the documentary enthralling yet completely relatable. The comedy is apparent throughout, mostly making its appearances in the women’s blunt nature, in particular Tan’s commentary and responses to Jasmine’s insults. Jasmine calls Tan an “asshole,” an insult that sounds almost loving in the way that only a close personal friend can do, and Tan accepts the title after reviewing some of her previous actions.

Tan and Jasmine meet Sophie, the last addition to their trio of young filmmakers, in a film-making class taught by Georges Cardona before they all leave for college. From this class emerges the making of Shirkers, an indie film different than anything previously made in Singapore, created by the three women as well as Cardona. Cardona disappears with all the footage after they conclude filming, creating the mystery of the documentary.

Cardona is the embodiment of jealousy, which provides a look into the way humanity can deteriorate when faced with consuming emotion. At one point, his jealousy even leads him to go behind the girls’ backs and get rid of the music for the film made by their friend. His personality, coupled with the heightened intensity of the music, enhances the depth of the film, as people find themselves drawn to him and then destroyed by his sabotage.

He lives in self-perpetuated lies and builds a persona that works to counter his identities in fear that people would negatively judge his class and ethnicity. His ex-wife comments on how horrified she is by how little she really knew about Cardona. After his death, she finds out he was actually four years older than he told her.

The artistry of the documentary is compelling, with brilliant colors that make each scene visually appealing. The way the movie was shot shows the beauty of Singapore while also illustrating the effects of time, which reflect Tan’s personal change from an idealistic girl to a woman struggling to find her way.

Twenty-five years after Cardona’s disappearance, Tan receives word of his death, which leads her to the discovery of the film. It is kept in perfect condition by Cardona except for one key piece: the sound. One of the final scenes in the documentary shows pieces of the discovered scenes without any sound. The documentary has a way of making you grieve while also giving the chance for you to hope.

Tan’s captivating story is matched by her ability to tell stories and capture the essence of those included in the making and ruining of Shirkers.

Edited by Claire Colby |ccolby@themaneater.com

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