‘Shirkers’ Could Well Kick Off Another #Movement

Writer-director Sandi Tan’s bio reads like an anime heroine. Born in Singapore, where chewing gum is outlawed and family expectations confining, teenager Sandi led a subversive life immersed in the rad, forbidden culture of Singapore. At the prodigious age of 14, she wrote for “Big O”, a magazine of Singapore’s underground rock scene. At 16, she started her own zine “The Exploding Cat” with best friend Jasmine Ng. It attracted a cult following; they received fan letters from New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, even from prisons. But that’s not the exciting part. At the ripe old age of 19, Sandi made the first indie road movie of Singapore, with a few devoted cinephiles and curious onlookers.

Sandi Tan in Shirkers

It all began when an enigmatic American expat called Georges Cardona arriving in Singapore and started a film class attended by mostly 18 and 19 year-old girls. Sandi started Georges’ class with great aspirations. He took her and a few other gals under his wings, went on night drives after class and introduced them to the French New Wave.

In the summer of 1992, energized by youthful zeal, Sandi made a movie called “Shirkers” with people from her filmmaking class, a remarkable feat. She wrote the script and played the main role, a 16 years-old assassin called “S”. Her best friend Jasmine was editor; another friend Sophie Siddique was producer, and Georges, the director. Sophie as executive producer wrote a letter to Kodak and received all film supplies free. How they rounded up supporting actors and extras, location scouts, sound and techs was an endeavour only youthful verve would attempt.

After the completion of the filming, Sandi and her friends left Singapore for University; she went to England, Jasmine to New York, and Sophie to L.A. Georges remained in Singapore. And that was when the girls lost contact with him. None of them had seen any of the footage, and Jasmine had all the intention to return after school term to do editing work. Georges had disappeared without a trace and taken with him all the 16mm reels of their “Shirkers” film. A large chunk of the girls’ life had gone missing, especially Sandi’s, who had put her heart and soul into the venture, and who, on her own, had gone on a road trip in America with Georges, by then her best friend, a man twice her age with a wife and kid.

With Georges’s mysterious exit, the filmmaking dream of the clan had all but vanished into thin air. After finishing university in England, Sandi went back to Singapore and wrote for Singapore’s Straits Times as a film critic, apparently a dream detoured. Yet life went on. A few years later she proceeded to NYC for film school at Columbia University and later settled in the U.S. She had since made a couple of short films and written a novel, The Black Isle (Hachette USA), which was well received. But at the back of her mind, she could not forget “Shirkers”. Then, twenty-five years later, that fateful day arrived.

Without giving out spoilers, somehow events led to the recovery of the complete “Shirkers” in its original condition in 70 canisters of 16mm film, together with storyboards, scripts, mementos and props used in the production. An amazing turn.

The present documentary is not only about the creative process in filmmaking by a group of young enthusiasts, but also a chronicle of a period in Singapore’s social and cinematic history. What’s more, Sandi Tan’s feature could well kick off something like the #MeToo Movement, not about sexual advantage taken by the powerful, but about adults in mentoring positions toying with the hopes and dreams of their protégé, about the betrayal of trust and the robbing of rightful ownership of creative endeavours. But of course, Georges could well be just a deeply disturbed soul shirking from real life challenges and responsibilities.

Shirkers the documentary is a cinematic collage of 16mm film, digital, Super 8, slides, animations, hand-drawn illustrations and writing, a visual cacophony of creative expressions. Cinematographer Iris Ng (The Apology, Stories We Tell) has done a realistic capture of old friends reuniting with the Jasmine and Sophie interviews plus those of other personnel associated with the original production. Jasmine is now a filmmaker and Sophie faculty of Film at Vassar.

The editing in bridging the 25-year-gap is seamless, the mood personal and quirky. Notable also are the sound mixing and the original score. Shirkers is more than just a chronicle of a mysterious lost-and-found, but a narrative that transcends grievances to situate personal experience in a larger social and cultural context.

Shirkers premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January where Sandi Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. The film was later acquired by Netflix and released October 26 via the streaming service.

Latest news is that Shirkers is among the 166 entries for Best Documentary Feature in the coming Oscars. Nominations for the short-list will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Academy Awards show will be broadcast live on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

Update Nov. 16: Shirkers has just been nominated for Best Documentary Independent Spirit Award.

Another Year (2010)

Update Feb. 10: Leslie Manville just won British Actress of the Year at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Update Jan. 25: Mike Leigh is nominated for an Oscar for Original Screenplay.

Update Jan. 18: Another Year is nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year, and Leslie Manville for Best Supporting Actress.

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.”

— ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Every DayAnother Year, film titles like these evoke the oblivious passage of time, and the human experiences that float down the stream of life. The kind of films we would find in art-house cinemas, not your fast-paced action or effects-generated spectacle.  Another Year would gratify one’s need for slow ruminations and offer one time to savour the dynamics among characters.  The film was on my ‘must-see’ list at the Calgary International Film Festival 2010, which ended last weekend.  It had met all my expectations and offered more.

What’s more is the excellent performance from a high calibre cast of British actors.  Their nuanced portrayals of characters convey emotions unabashedly, but in a deep, restrained and unsentimental manner.  That is what makes Another Year so satisfying.  I enjoyed it much more than director Mike Leigh’s previous title, equally acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), in which Poppy (Sally Hawkins) the happy gal is just a bit too loud and even obnoxious for me.  While here in Another Year, Tom and Gerri are the happy couple whose relationship is one of mature, quiet and gentle bliss, compassionate towards themselves and others.

Framed in the passing of the four seasons, the film explores the realities of life: ageing, loneliness, death, love, marriage, friendship… Yet the occasional animated and humorous renderings of the characters allow a lighter way of handling the subject matters.

Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) are a happily married couple living in London.  In the midst of the bustling city, they have their own plot of land close by their home where they work hard to grow vegetables. They bring home fresh produce to cook healthy meals and entertain guests.  Their vegetable garden is an apt metaphor for the love they cultivate in their relationship despite the busyness of everyday life. Tom is a geologist and Gerri a counsellor in a medical office. If there’s any pun intended here with their names, it would be for the very opposite effect that they are a harmonious pair whose relationship has attracted those less happy to cling on for stability and support.

Their usual dinner guest is Gerri’s office administrator Mary (Lesley Manville).  A single, middle-aged woman, emotionally fragile, alcohol dependent, and desperately seeking love and companionship. Her male version is Tom’s long time friend Ken (Peter Wight), equally miserable. A heavy smoker and drinker, Ken’s physical health mirrors his emotional state.

But why Tom and Gerri gather such damaged and dependent friends the film does not explain.  What we do see is a most gracious couple extending their lives to them. Through their interactions, we see the contrast. While we admire the almost perfect marriage, we ache for the singles, sad and lonely… as we see them in this film.  I trust the director is making a specific rendering and not a generalization on singlehood.  The contented Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is the best spokesperson for the single league.

Tom and Gerri have an adult son Carl (Martin Savage) who frequently comes home to visit his parents from a nearby town by train. When I saw the shot of a commuter train going past on screen, it flashed upon my mind the image in Ozu’s works.  That is one of the Japanese director’s signature shots, a train passing through, and his favourite subjects also being family, marriage, nuanced interactions.  I thought, if Ozu were an Englishman living today, this would be the kind of films he would make.  And lo and behold, I found this tidbit of trivia on IMDb: One of Mike Leigh’s top 10 films of all time is Tokyo Story (1953).

If one is to find fault with Another Year, it could be the very fact that Tom and Gerri’s marriage is just too perfect. But with all the ubiquitous dysfunctional families we see represented in movies nowadays, Leigh might have opened a window to let in some much needed fresh air. Tom and Gerri make an ideal contrast to what we have so sadly gotten used to seeing in films.

There are excellent performances from the veteran actors, but one stands out. Lesley Manville’s animated portrayal of the vulnerable Mary deserves an Oscar nomination. The most impressive shot comes at the end. Without giving it away, let me just say the ending shot lingering on her face and the ultimate fade to black is poignant and most effective. Of course, it’s acceptable to applaud after a festival screening. And so we did, appreciatively, a much needed channel for a cathartic response.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Every Day (2010)

In the movie Shadowlands, there’s a line that goes like this: “We read to know we are not alone.”  I think it applies to watching movies as well.

I’m glad somebody thinks the every day family life worthy of movie material.  Nothing spectacular or heroic, nonetheless difficult and to some, a struggle.  This is especially true when it comes to the so called sandwich generation, adult children who needs to care for their elderly parents as well as their own children.  Caught in the middle, parents to both.  In the midst of daily challenges, there remains the key relationship, the meat in the sandwich if you will, that which is between husband and wife, and always, the bare essence of a person and his/her integrity.  Herein lies the ingredients of the story.

Screened at the Calgary International Film Festival last night, the indie dramedy stars Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt as a NYC couple, Ned and Jeannie.  Their marriage faces a testing turn as Jeannie, driven by guilt and responsibility, brought her recently widowed father home to stay.  Ernie (Brian Dennehy) is not just any grumpy old man.  He is wheelchair confined, in ill health, and utterly bitter about everything and with everyone.  Jeannie is stressed out as she keeps pace just to live every single day.

Ned too has his share of problems at work.  As a scriptwriter for a seedy TV series, he has to meet the perverted demands of his boss Garrett (Eddie Izzard) to churn out scripts that are beneath his style.  To solve the problem he is assigned to work with a flirtatious colleague Robin (Carla Gugino) to rewrite something more daring and less boring.  Ned is tempted to do exactly that not only in his script.

And for their sons, they may look alright, but both yearn for direction and care just the same.  15 year-old Jonah (Ezra Miller) has just come out and is heading towards some risky friendship.  The younger one Ethan (Skyler Fortgang), though talented, has to deal with a defeating self-image. Amidst their own problems, Ned and Jeannie try to be good parents, loving yet setting limits, albeit finding a happy medium is hard to do.

Though not meant to be a serious film, it does touch on two thought-provoking questions implied by two unlikely characters.  From Robin the seducer:  Is a marriage finished when the ‘fun’ is over? Similarly from Ernie the bitter old man:  Should a life be ended when there is no happiness?

With subject matters as such, sitting through Every Day could be a gloomy ordeal.  But as a fusion of comedy and drama, it has come through to me as an enjoyable film. Written and directed by Richard Levine of the TV series “Nip/Tuck” fame, Every Day could seem episodic.  But the fast scene changes keeps the momentum going and the subplots clear.  Liev Schreiber is convincing as the family man in mid-life crisis.  Brian Dennehy is a veteran and spot on in his performance.  The boys are alright.  I have enjoyed Helen Hunt the most.  Her precarious roles of mother, wife, and daughter have resonated with me.  It has been three years since her directorial debut Then She Found Me.  I look forward to more of her works in the coming year.

Every Day premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC this April.  During the Q & A after the screening, Schreiber mentioned that the film is “a simple story and simple stories are often overlooked.”  Somebody has to make simple films like this, and somebody has to watch them.  I was one of the lucky ones last night at the CIFF.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Photo Source: myveronanj.com