Singapore Plays Itself: In Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, a Nation (and its Daughter) Come of Age Onscreen

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Beautiful Convergence

When it opened in 1930, Singapore’s Capitol Theatre was a glittering picture palace, the crown jewel of Southeast Asian cinema, with 1,600 seats and a projection room that purported to be the largest in the world. Golden Age luminaries graced its halls: Chaplin, Gardner, Fairbanks, Pickford.

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II, anti-Japanese resistance fighters bombed the Capitol complex on Stamford Road, damaging the building; the next few decades saw the theater’s cinematic offerings disrupted by ice shows and beauty pageants. A series of renovations ensued, and in 2015 the Capitol emerged glittering again, though to a very different world than that of its heyday.

Last Saturday, Capitol Theatre played host to the Singapore Film Society’s 60th birthday celebration screening: the local premiere of the documentary feature Shirkers, directed by Sandi Tan. Shirkers is about a film (of the same name) that Tan and her cinema-crazy friends made as kids in Singapore in the early ’90s, before their enigmatic mentor, Georges Cardona, absconded with the footage. Over the years, the lost Shirkers loomed large in the lives of Tan and friends (Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique). It distorted their relationships, becoming a mythical marker of an alternate history—the indie Singaporean cinema that might have been—until Tan recovered the footage, two decades later.

Shirkers premiered at Sundance this January, where it was picked up by Netflix and where Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award; it has since played doc fests as prestigious and far-flung as Denmark’s CPH:DOX, Israel’s DocAviv and Canada’s HotDocs. Make no mistake, however: Singapore is Shirkers’ home (and mine; Tan, though, now lives in Pasadena.) The country’s history, cinematic and otherwise, is embedded deep in the film’s DNA.

Saturday night’s celebration was particularly apt, in fact, because Tan was herself a Singapore Film Society member as a teenager. (Correspondence between her and the society gets a brief cameo in Shirkers.) And if that little sliver of self-reference pleases you, rest assured the night will contain a lot to please—a lot of things twisting in on themselves, a lot of what SFS Chairman Kenneth Tan referred to as “beautiful convergence” in his introductory speech.

Singaporean musician Weish performs songs from Shirkers at Capitol Theatre, October 20, 2018. Photograph by Kelly Leow

Two Shirkers

Shirkers 2018 opens with a few dreamily inexplicable images from Shirkers 1991—some in negative, some in reverse. A purple swan glides backwards on a purple pond; an upside-down man trims a bougainvillea plant. In a topiary garden, three young ballerinas lean forward in unison. A grinning man opens a case of rainbow-colored toothbrushes. A nurse dances with a floral print-wearing wolfhound on a balcony at night.

This parade of images would have presumably congealed into some kind of narrative sense in the lost film. Now they’re curios, analog gifs. Teenage cinephile Sandi Tan wrote Shirkers as a sort of absurdist slasher picture, with a female serial-killer protagonist (“S.,” played by herself) roving around Singapore leaving a trail of male bodies in her wake. Ng and Siddique served as assistant director and producer respectively. Cardona, a 40-year-old Caucasian who’d taught the trio a filmmaking class at Singaporean arts center The Substation, was director. A ragtag group of kids completed the crew.

Production spanned a college summer break. The team persuaded Kodak to donate 16mm film and camera equipment. They shot entirely without permits. They abducted extras from an old folks’ home. They shot exteriors only during Singapore’s magic hour (more accurately, Singapore’s magic 15 minutes), which dragged the shoot on but gave their film an unusually high-key, pastel glow. All this wacky guerrilla mayhem was an outlet for their outsized creativity, and a means to tap into a truer, more potent strain of life than was offered by their mundane society: “I had the idea,” Tan narrates in the documentary’s introduction, “that you found freedom by building worlds inside your heads.”

Cardona told the girls he’d cut the film, and while Ng and Siddique had misgivings, the three entrusted their footage to him.  Though he sent Tan the occasional cassette tape of his voice—meandering, musing messages—he soon dropped out of contact entirely, and Shirkers, the cinematic landmark to be, was no more. Tan became film critic for Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times, then went to film school at Columbia, then became a novelist in L.A.; Siddique became a film professor at Vassar, while Ng pursued a filmmaking career in Singapore. Their friendship went the route of so many intense teenage friendships: burning out slightly with age, but still anchored and compelled by shared history.

Then, in 2011, Tan received an email from Cardona’s ex-wife: Cardona had passed away, and did she want her film back? She traveled to New Orleans and recovered the shockingly pristine reels. Meanwhile, she interviewed the woman and others who’d been in Cardona’s life, parsing her way through the dense fabrications the man had spun over the years, and getting as close as possible to understanding his motivations. Eventually Tan assembled this new material, together with the original Shirkers and other archival footage, into the current 90-minute feature: part true-crime mystery, part paean to youthful ambition, part personal exorcism, part time capsule of a Singapore of yore.

It’s a fortuitous story, yes, but making Shirkers required Tan to dig deep into herself in many ways. “It sounds like such smooth sailing,” she tells me on a phone call a few days after the Capitol premiere. “I went to labs, I went to Sundance, I won a prize, I was picked up by Netflix: blah blah blah.

“But it was not. It was fucking difficult.”

A Nation Fading

In her brief pre-screening speech, Tan gave ’90s Singapore (a “different galaxy” from today) some context. For one, she said, “nobody was making films.” Beyond that, the nation was still “at the crossroads between its laid-back Southeast Asian identity—sleepy neighbourhoods, lots of green” and the “global economic powerhouse identity” that would soon take over.

Making Shirkers in 1991, Tan and crew rode pick-up trucks out to far-flung ends of the island, away from its bustling city center and residential stretches. They were looking, she told us, for “corners forgotten by everyone,” a Singapore that was slipping imperceptibly through their fingers. “People took these places for granted. They would vanish before our very eyes.”

I know what Tan means, though by the time I came of age, that Singapore—the damp tangles of jungle, the Brutalist architectural landmarks—had been rendered all the rarer. Ours is a landscape always in flux. So much so that last week, in a part of the island I’d not been to in a while, I caught a glimpse of an old Chinese restaurant my family frequented when I was a child, and was moved by it—its continued existence. Just as I was moved, watching Shirkers, to catch glimpses of the distinctive stairwell of an art deco apartment building in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood, or the tracks of the Singapore-Malaya Railway, shut down in 2011.

It’s entirely fitting, therefore, that into this atmosphere of disintegration, of impending loss, strolled Georges Cardona, who would make Shirkers itself disappear.

Georges Cardona in footage from the original Shirkers (1991). Courtesy of Netflix

We are What We Watch

In 2001 Tan made the short film “Gourmet Baby.” Its protagonist is a middle-aged man who bonds with his prepubescent niece over their shared taste for fine dining. The narrative has all the Lolita hallmarks: The man’s noir-ish voiceover echoes Humbert Humbert, and when the niece ultimately rejects his attention, you feel a small twinge of sympathy for him.

Of course Georges Cardona, it becomes clear in Shirkers, was the original Humbert for young Tan—“you’re my best friend,” he intones in one of the recordings he mails her; “we’re partners in crime.” Though he had a family, Cardona regularly took his young crew out for nocturnal drives to remote areas after class. And while nothing unsavory happened, exactly (besides him persuading the kids to hand over $10,000 to fund their production), his subsequent disappearance cast all that in a new, disquieting light.

When Tan digs more into the man and his life in Shirkers, however, the overwhelming sense her investigations evoke is less sinister than it is sad. We learn, from his various acquaintances, of a fundamental inadequacy and embarrassment that dogged him; from this sprang a “perverse need to create his own mythology,” leading him to boast of fantastical connections to famous moviemakers from Coppola to Soderbergh.

On the one hand, Cardona’s tall tales are pathetic, despicable. On the other, I suspect they echo at least a little with any other cinephile, anyone who loves movies so much that they want to live in one. In Shirkers, Cardona becomes a foil for Tan, a figure in whom the same impulses that animate her—artistic vision, desires unconstrained by their environment, a gift for dramatic narrative—have curdled.

“Georges made himself a composite of all his favorite characters,” Tan tells me. She isn’t really angry at him for it these days. Indeed, “that’s what the movies can do for us—they can help you explain yourself to yourself.”

In the doc, this revelation comprises one of her best lines of narration: “After unpeeling Georges Cardona layer by layer, I realized that there was nothing there but movies.” Yes, but what movies! Tan packed her documentary chockfull with references to cinema classics, which play out in short clips: Breathless, The Seventh Seal, Fitzcarraldo, Blow-up, Rushmore and Ghost World, Paris, Texas… even Singapore-shot “classics” They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (1978) and Medium Rare (1991).

This is, to my mind, one of the most Singaporean things about Shirkers: this hyper-referentialism, this habit of communicating through the words and images of others rather than our own. It makes sense—after all, as Tan tells me on the phone, “Singaporeans are great consumers.” When she wrote for The Straits Times, she remembers, it was common knowledge that the country boasted the world’s most frequent rates of moviegoing per capita. And that is by no means a bad thing: “You gotta know what’s out there. If you don’t immerse yourself in the wonders that are already available, then you’re missing out.”

Still, it’s perhaps a little tragic that our artistic consumption so far outstrips our artistic output. The phenomenon has its roots in a post-war governmental emphasis on rapid economic progress at the cost of artistic energy, and Shirkers touches on this a little too: how a culture too serious for art can throttle the silly, inane, magical dreams of a generation. At Capitol Theatre, Tan urged local parents to “loosen the chokehold on their kids. I’ve seen so many remarkable, interesting children grow up into very uninteresting grown-ups.”

Slowly, though, the arc of Singaporean creativity is bending toward production—like it did for Tan herself. “The joy of doing Shirkers,” she tells me, “was rediscovering my passion for making things. There is a great difference between watching and making. If people respond to this film like, ‘This rekindled something in me to create,’ then I’ve succeeded.”

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