"Shirkers": a voyage into the past
"Shirkers" is a documentary within a film. It's bold, ambitious and well-made.
“Shirkers” is “a remake of a movie that was never released,” according to director Sandi Tan.
An independent Singaporean film, the original “Shirkers” was about a serial killer looking for six people she liked enough to take to the next world with her. It was a road movie made by teenagers who could drive across their country in forty minutes, and was meant to bring teenage punk culture to 1990s Singapore. Essentially, it was the heart and soul of Tan and her two best friends, Sophie and Jasmine — all young artists who wanted to make it big and threw themselves into their work.
Unfortunately, that “Shirkers” was lost in 1992. The director, Georges Cardona, an adult man passionate about helping the teens make a movie, disappeared with all 70 cans of film. Twenty years later, his ex-wife found the film canisters perfectly preserved. The “Shirkers” we saw was a fascinating documentary which interspersed the original footage with clips about the making of the movie, the effort it took and the emotional weight behind it.
Because of its movie-within-a-movie format, “Shirkers” features the high-strung emotions and the feverish dreams of its 19-year-old protagonists through the lens of their older selves. In interviews and film clips, the creators of the original “Shirkers” re-engage with the dreams they had thought were gone forever. The movie forces viewers to ask, “How would you handle a too-late second chance?” The teens had put their all into the first movie, thinking it would be their big break into the film industry — what would you do if you thought you had lost that chance forever, only to get a second chance later in life? The characters had to reassess their old dreams, their 20-year-old vision of a masterpiece, and that must have been devastating.
Of course, the film also had to delve into the inner life of Georges, the adult filmmaker who eventually absconded with their dreams. Georges was a married man of mysterious origins who lived in Singapore and spent his nights driving around with teenagers. He taught them how to shoot film and validated their dreams. At the same time, he made them dependent upon him; when he left with their movie, the teenagers also lost a friend and mentor. “Shirkers” follows the adult artists as they explore Georges’ past postmortem. He conned others out of thousands of dollars, he told various stories about his past and he seemed to enjoy manipulating his dependents. Weirdly, he preserved every relic from the original movie except for the soundtrack. As adults discovering this, the moviemakers were perplexed. This plays into the movie’s themes of redemption and tying up loose ends; they redeemed their old dreams and answered some of their pressing questions, but those answers let to more unsolvable puzzles.
The emotional intensity and intricate plotting, while enticing, are not the main appeal of “Shirkers.” When you go see it, prepare to be blown away by the film itself. The cinematography is to die for, the lighting is wonderful and the film slams viewers with its cuts of old zines and ’80s photographs. Regardless of anything else, it’s a very well-made film!