There’s an alternate universe where Sandi Tan, a movie-crazy teenager from Singapore, burst onto the scene with her two young collaborators in 1992, forging an independent film movement in a country where none had existed. That dream ended when the mysterious director they were working with absconded with 70 16mm film canisters, which only recently surfaced — albeit without the accompanying sound recordings — in the wake of his death. Though the original film, a precocious answer to “Breathless,” has been lost, Tan has ingeniously refashioned the old footage into “Shirkers,” a cinematic memoir of growing up weird in Singapore and how a strange, incomplete production altered the trajectory of her life. After bowing at Sundance, where it picked up a well-deserved director award in the World Cinema Documentary competition, the film was bought by Netflix shortly before appearing in the True/False Film Fest and should reside comfortably on the service’s formidable roster of offbeat nonfiction.
A bittersweet sense of what might have been hovers over “Shirkers,” because it’s Tan’s first feature in the 25-plus years since she and her collaborators, led by a mercurial mentor more than twice their ages, set out to make a road movie in an island nation it takes only 40 minutes to drive across. Tan has two short films to her credit, as well as a long novel, “The Black Isle,” but there remains a tantalizing thought that her rough-hewn debut could have put Singapore cinema on the map all those years ago. Yet “Shirkers” doesn’t have the tone of a lament, despite the betrayal that deferred her youthful ambitions and tarnished her relationship with Jasmine Ng, a kinship so close that the two used to refer to themselves as “the Coen sisters.” Instead, the new film is a documentary that channels the collage-art spirit that informed the original project, as if Tan wanted to pick up where she left off. At the same time, she and her former partners-in-crime, Ng and Sophia Siddique, offer reflections on a bizarre experience and the eccentric character at the center of it.
When they were coming of age in Singapore, Tan and Ng didn’t have any easy access to the art that interested them. Their only touchtone for national cinema was Cleopatra Wong, whose martial-arts adventures were contained in three films from the late ’70s and early ’80s. In the absence of a movie scene, they fed their obsession through a clandestine VHS market that brought them second-generation copies of “Blue Velvet” and early work by Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers. Enter Georges Cardona, a blue-eyed enigma from America who was running a workshop for would-be young filmmakers like themselves. Tan took well to Cardona, and two eventually decided to make a shoestring, guerrilla-style road movie together, with Tan serving as its writer-star, Cardona as director, Ng as editor, and Siddique as producer. Over one wild summer, and a budget gap Tan and Ng had to drain their savings to close, they completed the rogue production. But when the women went their separate ways in America and Europe, leaving Cardona with the film materials, the entire project simply disappeared for 25 years.
Based on the footage, Tan’s road movie may have been no more than a doodle from a filmmaker still in development, but it’s colorful and quirky and bursting with youthful energy, combining the spirit of the French New Wave and American independent films that influenced it. All three women tell stories of a chaotic production, helmed by a fabulist that Ng and Siddique didn’t trust, but Tan found irresistibly charismatic, perhaps because he seemed like the only person capable of helping her realize her dreams. “Shirkers” sketches Cardona as a hell of a peculiar figure whose true origins are as undefinable as Tommy Wiseau’s, and who claimed to have inspired James Spader’s character in “sex, lies and videotape.” And that’s just the tip of the investigative iceberg.
Yet “Shirkers” isn’t about Cardona, but about Tan reclaiming the film and the story that he had taken away from her. Her energized, rough-hewn documentary style doesn’t seem that far removed from her lost debut, but she and her friends have enough perspective to look back at that period in their lives with touching fondness and good humor. The viewer, more than the filmmaker herself, may lament where Tan’s career might have gone. But she seems intent on moving forward — and this project may well be the vehicle for it.