In the early 1990s in notoriously regimented Singapore, 18-year-old Sandi Tan wrote a road trip movie called “Shirkers,” a French new wave-inspired spree about a female serial killer, played by Tan, and enlisted her teenage filmmaker friends in the adventure. The director was their mentor, an American named Georges Cardona, decades older than them. With “Shirkers” shot and awaiting post-production, Cardona vanished, along with the film, leaving Tan and her collaborators crestfallen. About 20 years later, Tan was informed that Cardona had died and that all the film’s footage, though not the soundtrack, had been preserved.
“Shirkers” is also the name of the documentary that Tan has fashioned from this oddball odyssey and it’s a one-of-a-kind reclamation project: part personal history, part fantasia. Cardona, who was something of a con man of genius, emerges as a character Vladimir Nabokov might have invented. Tan devotes almost as much time to him as to herself (even though very little actual footage of Cardona exists), and the overriding tone is a kind of dazed ruefulness. The film makes too much, I think, of what an artistic groundbreaker for Singaporean cinema the original “Shirkers” might have been – from the footage that we see, it looks like a goofy home-movie-style lark – and it’s difficult to feel sadness for what might have been when, if not for Cardona’s disappearing act, we wouldn’t have the current “Shirkers.” It’s a charming, wistful movie, and I trust Tan will not have to wait another 20 years to direct her next film. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)