Sunday 29 April 2018

SHIRKERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick: ***** The Joy of Cinema

A movie about the movie we deserve to see.

Shirkers (2018)
Dir. Sandi Tan

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Movies are my life - my whole life - and as such, the idea of someone with filmmaking hardwired into their DNA making a movie that completely vanishes without a trace, never to be seen by anyone, not even the filmmaker, is so tragic and downright appalling to me, that the very idea is enough to send shivers down my spine and even inspire emotions of deep sadness. Seriously, just thinking about it, causes my eyes to well up with tears. Sure, any artist that loses their work, especially work that's unfinished, seems utterly unthinkable, beyond the realm of possibility, so preposterous, that the very thought is one that shouldn't even be fathomed.

And yet, this is what happened to filmmaker Sandi Tan.

However, one quarter decade later, she returned to filmmaking and created Shirkers, a personal documentary of her inspiring and yet, horror-filled journey. All the excitement and artistry of her youth explodes with this first-rate picture that feels like it was directed with that rare within-an-inch-of-her-life fervour - a compulsive, thrilling movie alternately infused with the passion of youth and alternately, the benefit of life experience.

The story she tells here is at once a time capsule of a specific place and period as well as being a deeply moving and inspirational exploration of the creative spirit.

As a counter-culture-punk-rock-movie-loving teenager growing up in Singapore during the 1980s, Sandi made a feature film in the early 1990s with the help of her best friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique - a road movie about a female serial killer that was definitely in the zeitgeist of such counter-culture film heroes as David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, the cooler-than-cool Heathers and even pre-dating the likes of Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel Ghost World. Given that Singapore had virtually nothing resembling a film industry, this was a Herculean feat. Also given the political and cultural repression, it's astounding that Tan and her friends not only secured bootleg videos and cassette tapes of forbidden movies and music, but also published a raft of cutting edge fanzines. These brilliant, vibrant young women not only rode the waves of alternative visions, they were the waves.

There was, in all this, a dark horse - a forty-ish mentor with a mysterious past, one Georges Cardona. The married-with-children American expatriate not only ran a ramshackle little film school, surrounding himself with (mostly) teenage girls, but he was a genuine lover of cinema who imparted his knowledge and excitement upon Tan and her friends. He'd spend endless nights with the young ladies, driving the streets of Singapore, regaling them with cinema lore.

There's no two ways about it. He knew a few things and was really good at imparting his knowledge. He was super-charismatic, but he was also clearly a creep. In this current environment of the #metoo movement, one can't get away from the fact that his methods and motives were not only suspect, but downright innapropriate. But as Tan's extraordinary personal journey unfolds, the steely blue shark eyes of Cardona masked something even more insidious and, if possible, more cruel.

Utilizing archives and videotape from the period, footage from the unfinished movie itself, a glorious new sound design and beautifully shot all-new footage, Tan renders a movie that more than fulfills the promise of her early and, tragically (through no fault of her own) unfinished work. In some ways, this is a movie that most filmmakers dream of making. Tan goes the distance here, and then some. Shirkers not only delights and tantalizes us, but provides a compelling mystery story that is punctuated with a beautifully edited and structured series of shocking revelations.

As a sidenote, there's a reason why the unfinished film is currently unfinished, but frankly, I was, and continue to be inspired by the notion that it could definitely be finished. Yes, with a complete rethink and utilizing some utterly insane, inspired post-modern techniques. Then again, maybe it's a case of that was then, this is now. I don't think so, but the most important thing is what appears before us now, a brand new movie of mad genius and imbued with the qualities of the kind of work that genuine movie-lovers thrive on. Shirkers, as it stands, is a film of deep, lasting value.

And yes, it's a profoundly moving experience. The final third plunges one into an explosion of emotion. By the end, we get a series of events and a gorgeously edited montage that had me squirting Old Faithful-like geysers of tears. One leaves the movie theatre elated - yes, there's melancholy to be sure, but what ultimately consumes us is the promise of even greater work to come from this natural filmmaker and most of all, a picture that reminds us of the joy and beauty of cinema itself.

It doesn't get better than that.


Shirkers enjoys its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs 2018.