Toward the beginning of her brilliant documentary Shirkers, Sandi Tan recalls her teenage feelings toward men. There were the “delectable” boys whom she chased, and the ones she just “liked as good friends.” There was one boy, Leon, who “was so full of himself, claiming that every girl was in love with him” that Tan wrote him into her first film script with a grim, school bus-induced demise.
And then there was another, trickier type of relationship: “I made friends with strange men,” she says. “Because I was bold in that way.”
The line makes you stop in your tracks. Every woman can remember that relationship: the one she shared with the peculiar older man; the one that seemed adventurous at the time, but, when summoned back later, bears the blotches of a dubious power dynamic.
For Tan, the man was Georges Cardona. He provides the basis, if not the focus, of her intriguing new Netflix documentary, which looks back at the genesis, production, and ensuing mystery of a feature film (also called Shirkers) that she made with two friends in their native Singapore in 1992. Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique grew up film-obsessed, worshipping the Coen brothers and Blue Velvet and whatever ‘80s indie discoveries they could get their hands on. Together, they enrolled in a film workshop taught by Cardona, a smirking eccentric who became their mentor. Soon, the threesome grew into a scrappy, visionary, and now urban-legendary production team.
In the summer of 1992, with Cardona’s help and mentorship, the young women shot Tan’s original script Shirkers, an otherworldly, French New Wave-infused feature that could have become a cult classic, had the footage seen the light of day. Instead, after the women completed production and left the island for college at the end of that summer, Cardona vanished, taking the women’s most prized possession—the reels of Shirkers—with him.
So began the devastating mystery that has haunted Tan, Ng, and Siddique for the entirety of their adult lives. Their careers continued on in divergent, successful directions, but the rage and frustration they felt over Shirkers’ disappearance stuck with them. They fought tooth and nail to get that film made—conning outside producers and investors, hustling for hours on end, draining their own bank accounts when they ran out of funds—but there was more to it than that. The project illustrates something more universal and timeless. It’s the story of budding female creativity, the thrill of a collaborative vision, and the expired men cruel enough to foil it.
We’re ushered through the documentary by Tan’s smart and charismatic voiceover, beginning with her upbringing in Singapore, a beautiful island that, even as a kid, Tan knew was evolving rapidly. Old photos and grainy footage accompany interviews with people from Tan’s past, particularly Ng and Siddique, who reflect on their idiosyncratic friendship while simultaneously calling Tan out for her youthful egotism. “You were being an asshole,” Ng informs Tan matter-of-factly at one point, cutting through the nostalgic bliss. Tan takes the charge seriously, and throughout the documentary her unpacking of her own behavior—selfish and pushy and opportunistic—becomes an emotional puzzle that accompanies the concrete question of Cardona’s disappearance.
The latter half of the film is more overtly investigatory, following Tan as she travels the States in search of clues about Cardona’s life. Everyone she talks to recalls him as a menace: strange and grandiose, yet deceptively charming. “We’re storytellers. And he’s a great story,” one of Cardona’s male mentees offers in an interview. In Tan’s original Shirkers script, her protagonist (which Tan also starred as) traversed the island collecting victims whom she’d kill by “shooting” them with two fingers—dashing their dreams just as Cardona dashed hers. Maybe there was more alike between Cardona and Tan than she would have preferred to admit: back then, she was something of a menace herself.
Last week, Shirkers debuted on Netflix. In addition to having one of the year’s best original soundtracks—simple, sinister, and unshakable—Shirkers is among the most empowered female movies of the year. Unfortunately, Netflix hasn’t been known to pay befitting attention to its most deserving titles (I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore is the premier example). The sad irony of Shirkers premiering on Netflix is that, after 25 years of Tan’s imaginative footage going unwatched, the film is poised to receive a similar treatment. Like Tan’s original 1992 script, Shirkers is beautiful, complex, and haunting. It deserves to be seen.