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

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Building Backward

After sitting with the old footage for a few years, dredging up a paper trail of letters and zines from her youth, and gathering new documentary footage—shot by Iris Ng, the cinematographer behind Sarah Polley’s (thematically similar) Stories We Tell—Tan looked for an editor who could build all that into a coherent film. She found one in the young Lucas Celler, whose biggest claim to fame was serving as assistant editor on Jeff Feuerzeig’s (thematically similar) Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Tan had a gut feeling about him. The things about Celler that might’ve put off other, wiser filmmakers—his youth, his inexperience—resonated with her.

“I knew from listening to music with him, and seeing the videos he made in high school, that he had that badass attitude I’d had when I was younger and making up my own rules,” she tells me. “A risk-taking attitude. He had a great sense of rhythm, and he was young enough to remember what it was like to be a restless teenager.”

She knew that the graphical manipulation that drives much of Shirkers had to come first in the edit, that the other things had to stem from that, instead of the other way around. “The responsible version is: You do the story, you do the structure, and then you do the package stuff like graphics and music—whereas you could not make this film that way. You had to go backward. The proper [documentary] world was horrified at the risky way I was doing this… this whole industry of people who are hidebound.”

The peculiar nature of the project, with its diverse and scant footage, put extra pressure on its soundscape. Tan worked with sound designer Lawrence Everson to maximize sound’s ability to tap into the subconscious. For example: “Whenever we see Georges onscreen, I wanted him to be almost pungent, to have an aura about him… a metallic sting. You should feel that he’s static personified. So we worked with sounds of static, and reverb.” On the other hand, the stolen film reels had to sound “almost like a living person who was kidnapped,” she says. “It’s giving out signals from wherever it’s being held—sonar signals, or pulses.” That static, those pulses and other noises (tinkling chimes, faint sirens, machinery whirring) were eventually mixed together with a suitably haunting score, with vocals by Singaporean singer Weish, composed by Israeli musician Ishai Adar.

Sandi Tan now lives in Pasadena, California. Courtesy of Netflix

And what about one of Shirkers’ most distinctive aural elements: Tan’s own voiceover? She resisted the idea at first: “The impulse of every filmmaker is to not talk about themselves.” Then consulting editor Enat Sidi helped her see the light. “She said, ‘Sandi, don’t you realize this movie is about you? There’s no way to tell this in a partial way.’”

So Tan—already struggling to confront the 19-year-old version of herself from the Shirkers footage—had to collaborate with herself in yet another capacity. This took some cognitive dissonance. “You see the person reading the lines as a voice actor giving a line reading. You see yourself onscreen as a person giving a bad performance—or a great performance. I saw myself as not myself, but as a character.”

Curtain Call

Hearing Tan say that, I thought of the set that Weish performed (two songs from the movie: “Tick Tick” and “Tell You Something”) as part of the SFS festivities at Capitol Theatre. She stood on stage alone, images from Shirkers projected behind her, with only a looper for an instrument. Into this device, Weish recorded her own vocals and played them back over themselves, slowly building a lush a cappella harmony. She clicked her tongue, she beatboxed, she emitted baboon-like hoots, and these noises formed a chorus over which floated her lyrics: “I lie awake and wait…”

Watching this, I thought, again, how fitting. The looper filters and plays ourselves back to us. It allows us to accompany ourselves, to be our own company. It puts our past—the immediate past, even—into contact with our present.

Convergence. Lines meeting at a nexus: one place, one movie. During his speech SFS’s Kenneth Tan marveled at the changes he’d witnessed through his years with the society. Remember celluloid? Remember when you went to the movies to make life in your tiny island nation feel that much bigger? (Remember when the size of a projection room was something to be impressed by?) Now a Singaporean’s film about a Singaporean film is going to be streamed to the entire world via a digital platform. And so what if that platform’s small-scale formats offer less of the magic, the convergence, of Capitol Theatre and its fading brethren—the tangible electricity, on a night like Saturday, of seeing people you know both in the aisles and on the screen? Singaporean cinephiles are bullish right now, as Crazy Rich Asians winds down its worldwide box-office conquest, and more of our countrymen make movies than ever. Cinema feels alive and well here.

After Weish’s performance, after the credits rolled, Saturday night held two more surprises: One was musician Ben Harrison (the would-be composer for the 1991 film) and a band dubbed the “Shirkers Circus” playing Harrison’s mournful, propulsive original score, live for the first time ever.

The results of Singapore Film Society’s “Finding the Lost Shirkers” campaign at the Capitol Theatre. Photograph by Kelly Leow

Then the final homecoming touch. In the weeks leading up to that night, SFS had run a campaign called “Finding the Lost Shirkers,” attempting to track down the 100 or so cast and crewmembers of the original film and invite them to the screening. Thirteen of these individuals now made their way to the stage for a curtain call, joining Tan and Jasmine Ng, who was yelling out to shy stragglers: “This is the chance of a lifetime to be reunited!”

Hugs and laughter and tears ensued. Tan made her way down the row, identifying each person: This bespectacled man was the little boy riding the electric bike; that woman was one of the ballerinas in the garden. We all oohed and ahhed accordingly at the passage of time, and at fate, which had brought them together so haphazardly in 1991.

Finally they took a bow, a quarter century later. MM

Shirkers is now available to stream on Netflix. Kelly Leow is MovieMaker‘s former deputy editor, now editorial consultant.

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