There's no counting the creative projects begun in youth that have been abandoned, forgotten, scrapped. Sandi Tan's bears the weird and painful distinction of having been stolen.

It was a movie called Shirkers, an exuberantly dreamy grrl-power-meets-noir crime story, shot guerrilla-style on the streets of her native Singapore in 1992. Tan scripted and toplined as a teenage assassin named S. Her weapon of choice: fingers pointed like a gun. At the helm was the middle-aged American — or was he? — film instructor of nebulous background who she'd come to consider her best friend. He would disappear with all the footage, his postproduction promises unfulfilled. Two decades later, the 70 canisters of 16mm film were unexpectedly returned to Tan, by then a Los Angeles-based novelist. What to do, what to do.

The Shirkers that Tan has made is a wry and wistful portrait of the artist as a young punk. Combining the 25-year-old material and new interviews with her filmmaking co-conspirators, it's a cine-essay on movie love, a capsule autobiography and a lament for what might have been. In the annals of lost films, Tan's original Shirkers may hold a special place, but in its long, long wake she's fashioned a crime-of-the-heart investigation that has a gumshoe pulse and casts a hypnotic spell.

The film is also a fascinating rebel's-eye view of an authoritarian culture. Under Singapore's single-party regime, the country was a safe but boring place for a teenager in the '80s. Chewing gum was banned and, as Tan's voiceover narration notes, with a lingering sense of insurgency, family and the state were "in your face." By the time she met film teacher Georges Cardona in her late teens, she was already a vet of underground rock journalism and, in a break from the boys' club, she and Jasmine Ng had started their own zine, The Exploding Cat.

Tan found inspiration in such nonconformists as Jarmusch and Lynch, and film became her favorite language (clips from classics of the auteur canon punctuate the doc, to variously witty and stirring effect). In Cardona she saw a soul mate who spoke that language; others saw a wildly waving red flag. "I didn't believe in Georges" is the understated verdict of Sophia Siddique Harvey, who served as producer — and devised innovative ways of creating crowd scenes on a shoestring budget. Ng, the movie's would-be editor, is less forgiving of Tan's blind spot when it came to Cardona, and doesn't mince words when she blames her for the project's fate.

In the island nation's tiny film community, everyone knew of that fate. It was an understandable sore point for Tan, who had been on the verge of seeing her movie dreams come true and instead saw them quashed into coulda-woulda legend. She refused requests to talk or write about the aborted Shirkers, and moved on to new places and other ways of expressing her creativity. "There was a piece of my spirit that died," Harvey says of the experience.

When, out of the blue, the purloined reels find their way back to Tan, she determines to solve the mystery of Georges Cardona, and the road movie she'd long ago set out to make is realized, in a different form: a pilgrimage to meet other people who knew her former mentor. As with many a crime, the answers she uncovers are almost disappointingly ordinary compared with the act itself, and the perpetrator who once loomed large grows smaller with each revelation.

But this fallen hero had an eye for talent. And what resonates most deeply in Shirkers, with its pops of 1992-vintage absurdity, its present-day reckoning and the droll Nouvelle Vague flourishes that tie things together, is the way it locates a moment in time, exhilarating and openhearted, when all (pretend) guns were blazing and Singapore was a movie set.

 

 

Production company: Shirkers LLC in association with Cinereach
Director-screenwriter: Sandi Tan
Producers: Sandi Tan, Jessica Levin, Maya Rudolph
Director of photography: Iris Ng
Editors: Lucas Celler, Sandi Tan, Kimberley Hassett
Composer: Ishai Adar
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine

96 minutes