I have seen a few great documentaries this year. Some of my favorites being Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, and The Filmworker (which is a cheat because it was released last year). However, none of them screamed “follow-up project” louder to me than the transcendental experience that is Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (2018) . The recently released Netflix documentary is one of the best movies of the year and would make for a great television series adaptation starring unknown, yet talented Asian actors.
4.5/5| Documentary| 1hr 36m
Director: Sandi Tan
Screenplay: Sandi Tan
Cinematography: Iris Ng
Growing up in Singapore, Sandi Tan wanted nothing more than to make her own film. Finally, after years of wishful thinking, she decided to take initiative and do what she believed she was destined to do. In 1992, she wrote and starred in a road movie, ‘Shirkers’, that she made with her friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey, and her strange mentor, Georges Cardona. This film was supposed to be a revolutionary experiment that would put Singapore independent filmmaking on the map, however that all changed when Georges disappeared with all of the footage and the film never had the opportunity to be released to public. Twenty-five years later, Sandi Tan has recovered the stolen footage (although without sound) and pieced together a pop-art love letter to filmmaking in her new documentary, Shirkers.
This experimental documentary plays like an animated/live-action diary turned mystery. Tan incorporates into the work, early writings, photographs and homemade zines that she made with her friends, Jasmine and Sophie, to showcase the creative innocence they possessed before embarking on the most ambitious venture of their young lives. Interviews of friends and colleagues paint a picture of their naiveté and genuine fascination with the intoxicating allure of Western filmmaking. Tan confesses to being under the influence of the enigmatic American film lover, Georges, who taught she and her friends a lot of what they knew about pop culture unavailable to them. They also reflected on how he practically pressured them into making a film long before they were ready. Georges actions all but crushed the young girls dreams of redefining Singapore cinema and caused them all to drift apart. Although the naive girls grew into strong women, they are still haunted by the creation that was snatched from their arms.
With fragments of the original 16mm film sprinkled throughout the narrative like pieces of a long forgotten puzzle, Shirkers translates the most earth shattering situation of Tan’s life into an ethereal event. Each calculated shot and trippy transition demonstrates the great appreciation Tan has for film; her love drips off the screen. During the course of the documentary, I could not stop smiling because the way she and her friends talk about movies reminds me of the way my friends and I discuss our favorites. Shirkers acts as a great reminder to film lovers that there are still people out there who appreciate movies beyond the glitz and glam of blockbusters, even though blockbusters are enjoyable events as well.
This documentary tells one of the most fascinatingly bizarre stories that will leave film buffs begging for more, and trust me when I tell you there is so much more it could become. By the end of the first act my brain was exploding with ideas on how this documentary about the difficulties and downright horrors of filmmaking could be translated to the small screen. A Shirkers series would check all the boxes no mainstream American television series has ever checked before. In an era where films and television shows like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Fresh Off the Boat are breaking records (and rightfully so), something that matches the breath of fresh air that is Sandi Tan’s great delivery could be era defining.
I envision the ‘Shirkers’ series following a fictionalized, young Sandi Tan (played by some talented up and comer) growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, and the experiences she has with her friends, Jasmine and Sophie. Focusing on their love for filmmaking and their lives outside of America, while also showcasing the fact that they are still surrounded by American influences would make for a fascinating entertainment topic. The audience would fall in love with the relatable experiences of these young, foreign, female characters and cry with them when their dreams are dashed by the egotistical American male. I can hear the think pieces being written right now as I type the general outline of this hypothetical hit. Just imagine a dramatic comedy series, set in the beloved 90s, starring young Asians who are obsessed with and make films. It could be the most stylish, pop culture reference-filled period piece on television and will have the added benefit of putting underrepresented groups front and center.
The series would have to consist of a potluck of influences to represent how Tan herself was shaped and molded by the creative works she enjoyed. If I was involved, I would have the writers watch a small number of films and TV shows that could influence the project aesthetically and tonally. In regard to film recommendations, I would suggest they watch the flawless masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), which is a four-hour long coming-of-age crime drama directed by Edward Yang. That film intimately captures the seductive nature of Asian landscapes and even though it takes place in Taiwan, I believe A Brighter Summer Day would be a great reference point in terms of blocking and framing shots. The black comedy film Ghost World (2001), which starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, is another film that would make for a great style influence. The clothing and universal angst of 1990s young adults featured in that comic book turned film would be a helpful look-book when attempting to reference the type of Western culture Tan and her friends were obsessed with.
To keep with the style of the documentary, I would love to see animated segments spread across the show like a dew. Similar to the classic Disney Channel Original series Lizzie McGuire, it should feature an animated version of the lead character giving soliloquies in between scenes. That would not only be be a great tool for exposition, but also a great use of a trope we don’t really see anymore. It would also just be fun as hell. Lastly, I would suggest the writers watch the throwback MTV satire Daria. The biting wit and dry humor of that series would be a great addition to the animated-lead cutaways and would be a nice reflection of Tan and company’s shared sense of humor.
I know all of these recommendations seem mixed and matched, but I feel like they could come together in a way that is not only interesting, but elevates the poignancy of the story being told. These niche Taiwanese and American works translated to the visually stunning land and stories of Singapore could turn out to be something special. But honestly, even if this hypothetical series ends up looking nothing like this, I still think Shirkers has a great premise that someone should definitely look into expanding. Hopefully someone in Hollywood sees this post. What do you say, studios? Lets call this one a freebie.
You can watch Shirkers (2018) right now on Netflix.