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Review: Shirkers (Sandi Tan)

Sandi Tan and Georges Cardona in Shirkers

Nothing is ever truly lost. All of life passes into history; life, indeed, already is history by the time our minds have processed it, and the perceived loss of something whether big or small, dear or distant, is only experience gained, another thread in history's grand tapestry. We're left with our memories alone, or perhaps with several cans of mute film footage. Something has been lost in Shirkers, and so something shall be gained from it: a new experience, collaging a perception of what was with a new perception of what it really is. Sandi Tan's adolescent passion project by the same name disappeared immediately following production, made off with by its charlatan creep of a director; her reclamation of this movie, along with her memories of its making, now matured, forms a unique and compelling passion project all of its own.

If, for what Tan and her collaborators once achieved, admiration is due largely in spite of its inevitable, amateur lapses in judgement and taste, then for what she now achieves, admiration is due largely in how her artistry has become refined, yet never diluted. Some of the same gaucheness lingers - Tan's self-awareness remains a tad limited, and the rebellious spirit she once so boldly touted carries a distinct touch of corniness and misguidedness - but Shirkers as it exists now is a highly enjoyable, ebullient work of self-expression, if not of the kind of experimental genius that I suspect Tan intended it to be. Experimentalism abounds through sections of this picture, though Tan reins it in when her story demands a calmer, more emotionally intimate approach. It's here that Shirkers captures the interest it seeks from its audience - Tan doesn't merely relate events and submit opinion, she turns her natural inquisitiveness to the service of a thorough probe into a tortured soul. The process is undoubtedly cathartic for the director - evident chiefly in the simple publishing of her old footage after so long - but only so in its depth, which is presented here in full.

You rather don't expect Shirkers to go so deep, and that it does is most welcome; elsewhere, this is an ephemeral treat that's not without its considerable defects, if always wholly forgivable. Its ephemerality is apt, though - all that either works or doesn't quite work about this movie is destined to pass into history, present in our memories alone. Yet what emblazens itself strongest on our memories is not the cutesy quirkiness, nor the stylistic experimentation, but the conventional character investigations Tan carries out, a quarter of a century on from the doomed production of her teenage dream. It's not bold filmmaking, but it's very good, and that's what lingers longest.

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