“Shirkers” is the title of a debut feature that a 19-year-old filmmaker named Sandi Tan began working on in Singapore in 1992. The sad, infuriating circumstances that derailed the production — involving a practiced liar, a cruel betrayal and a stash of 16-millimeter film reels that were lost for nearly two decades — are explored in Tan’s marvelous new documentary, which is also called “Shirkers,” in a poignant and fitting touch. A knotty detective yarn, a funny valentine to Singapore and one of the year’s most ardent expressions of movie love, it tells a story of cinematic theft, and in the process, becomes an entrancing feat of cinematic reclamation.
Full disclosure: Tan’s husband, the film critic John Powers, is a friend. I don’t know the filmmaker herself at all well, though one of the pleasures of “Shirkers” is that by the end, you feel as though you do. This might seem like a given at the outset, as Tan provides the movie’s ever-present voice-over narration and, along with her childhood pals and former behind-the-scenes collaborators, nudges her true-crime reconstruction in the direction of an honest, sometimes lacerating self-critique.
But what distinguishes “Shirkers” — both the documentary and the surviving remnants of the fiction — isn’t just a lot of confessional blather. It’s the singularity of the voice, the emergence of a genuine sensibility, a darkly funny, casually obsessive way of looking inward as well as outward. There are irreducible traces of that sensibility in the film’s eccentric eye, its sardonic tone and its haunting Ishai Adar score, built around a musical motif that sounds, appropriately enough, like a woman’s sigh.
You feel that sensibility especially clearly, and also get a sense of where it may have originated, in the early passages devoted to Tan’s Singapore upbringing. In the ’80s, she and an equally spirited teenager, Jasmine Ng, forged a lifetime friendship out of a deep and unquenchable love for popular culture. The visual evidence of that love is so dense and compelling — a pop-up shrine to Bertolt Brecht, an old Patti Smith cassette tape, collage-like pages torn from the magazines they wrote, illustrated and published — that you wish the film would slow down at moments and let you browse.
More than anything, perhaps, Tan and Ng loved movies, from “Breathless” to “Blue Velvet,” a copy of which Tan was able to obtain only by circumventing Singapore’s strict censorship laws. As a portrait of female friendship alone, of two punk teens from a geographically and culturally isolated nation preparing to take the world by storm, this documentary is hard to resist. But that portrait deepens in emotional complexity as Tan and Ng revisit and sometimes argue over what happened next, when they set out in 1992 to make their own feature, “Shirkers,” a moody road picture about the exploits of a serial killer named “S.”
Tan, who wrote the script, would play the lead; Ng and another close friend, Sophie Siddique, were tasked with producing. To direct, they enlisted Georges Cardona, a middle-aged American man who had become their mentor and friend. Cardona encouraged and focused their youthful cinephilia while also dangling tantalizing tales of his own Hollywood connections, including the claim that he was the inspiration for James Spader’s role in Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape.”
Whether Cardona fully grasped the implications of that lie, his association with Spader’s character, a calmly detached observer and exploiter of other people’s vulnerabilities, becomes increasingly hard to shake as the tale unravels. Well into the production, Cardona suddenly vanished, taking 70 canisters of film, boxes filled with scripts and storyboards, and the dreams of several talented young filmmakers with him.
The story of a promising female artist being manipulated and sabotaged by an arrogant, pathologically dishonest man is one with particular resonance in 2018, and the power dynamic here is further complicated by Cardona’s status as a cultural outsider, an American who effectively snuffed out a potentially vital new voice in Singaporean independent filmmaking. Cardona makes a fascinatingly loathsome Svengali, and Tan, digging into his slippery life story while breathlessly following the thread of her own painful memories, more than gives him his due.
But to dwell on Cardona here, rather than on the substance of what he stole, would effectively mimic his crime. Without giving away too many of the story’s twists, the “Shirkers” reels ultimately found their way back to Tan, who has now merged the old footage with her freshly shot interviews into a compelling and startlingly cohesive cine-Frankenstein. The material from the shoot is gorgeous, a lush and humid time capsule of early ’90s Singapore that boasts a treasure trove of sartorial and architectural details.
But of course it is more than that. We are watching fragments of a fiction, a strange, beguiling and necessarily incomplete narrative that sometimes feels like a pure distillation of a filmmaker’s id. There is a bus accident and a grisly killing. There’s a nurse, a lot of women smoking cigarettes and one very large, scene-stealing dog. And, of course, there is the 19-year-old Tan herself, at times looking happily lost in thought as she tries to unlock the movie in her head, never suspecting the richer, stranger thing it would one day become.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills, and streaming on Netflix