Despite the disorder that permeates Shirkers by Sandi Tan, it ultimately is a defiant ode to the gendered poetics and politics of filmmaking. Above all, it reminds us there is no future in our nostalgia, and no nostalgia in the future of our past, to recall Arthur Yap’s poem on the well-known Singaporean mourning for a past snatched too soon from us.
As a Singaporean film writer, I am acutely aware of the difficulties of breaking out of impossible censorship and a meagre amount of funds granted to independent cinema. It is rare to even see Singaporeans believe in our own artistic potential. That’s why Tan’s internationally-acclaimed work not only holds extreme cultural significance in our country, but also instills hope for the next generation of Singaporean filmmakers. For the first time, I am seeing a piece of Singaporean work talked about by my fellow colleagues here at Much Ado. It may simply be casual chatter to them, but for me this chatter reflected the visibility I have desired so much for Singaporean art. And I did not know how much I have wanted our art to be part of a simple, off-handed discussion on an international stage. Shirkers changed all that.
In Shirkers, the narrative of the chaotic past is explicitly interwoven with the narrative of the seemingly calm present. Jarring interjections of the late Georges Cardona’s presence into the film’s narrative present serves to remind the audience of how the stability of Tan’s present is all too fleeting, dependent upon the willed repression of the past. Repression is what Tan and her friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, have done to move on from the anguish Cardona’s male ego had imposed upon them. However, the use of these interjections paradoxically serves to enact the exact opposite. It forces a remembrance of the painful past all three women have attempted to forget, and begets a renewed confrontation of the hierarchised power dynamics which had haunted their friendship during the process of filmmaking.
Towards the end of the film, Tan finally confesses that she has always been “an asshole” to both Ng and Siddique. Her confession displays a stark vulnerability absent from the making of the original Shirkers, when Tan had refused to empathise with her friends, choosing to focus solely on the success of the film. In an industry that sustains itself on the facade of impossible perfection, Shirkers reminds us that beneath the tough veneer of any award-winning film lies anguished compromise and willed silence. Any piece of art is necessarily born out of the coerced compromise of those who are pushed to the margins. In the original Shirkers, the three women were violently excluded out of their artistic creation by Cardona. In the current film, we see that beneath that violent exclusion lies another that has been left unspoken — Tan’s exclusion of Ng and Siddique’s opinions from the making of the original.
Through exposing what has been left unspoken, the remake of Shirkers acts as a provocative rewriting of the past, and a bold resistance against its chokehold on the present. Like Tan’s confession, the current film confesses that it cannot change what Cardona has done. However, it defiantly moves beyond mere confession into the territory of reclamation. While the start of the film demands a futile explanation from the late Cardona, the film progresses to decenter Cardona from past memories, choosing instead to heal the wounds he had left behind. Most importantly, it chooses to praise the strength of the relationships these women share with each other. Every past shot of Cardona is overthrown by the present scenes of these women thriving in their respective careers in film. While Shirkers has a namesake, the lingering traces of this namesake are in the process of being re-written and renewed. It is not a complete breakaway from the past, but rather recognising the value of it, accepting it, and moving on. The original Shirkers may have been returned to Sandi Tan as a patriarchally muted piece of work, but Shirkers fiercely reclaims the silenced voices of all the women involved in the process of filmmaking.