A Celluloid Clock

Keeping Time in Sandi Tan’s Shirkers


In 1992, 19-year-old Singaporean rebel filmmaker Sandi Tan devised, wrote, and starred in an independent feature called “Shirkers.” Tan played S, a teen killer who romps around the city, collecting a band of fellow outcasts. Under the direction and mentorship of her film instructor Georges Cardona, and enlisting the support of two co-conspirators, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, Tan scraped the production together against the odds, with a meager budget and an overabundance of determination and resourcefulness. Since becoming a sovereign nation in 1965, after nearly 150 years of British colonial rule and a brief union with Malaysia, Singapore had essentially no domestic film industry, and in some circles, “Shirkers” was a highly anticipated shock to the country’s system. When shooting wrapped, however, Cardona stole the film and vanished. 

Tan recovered her 70 reels of footage in 2011, when Cardona’s ex-wife returned them upon his death. Tan recounts the tale in her 2018 documentary, Shirkers, collaging the luminous footage from her original feature with personal archival material, entrancing sound design, and contemporary interviews with friends and collaborators. The story of Shirkers is one of a search for lost time. Tan’s 16mm film reels amount to approximately 700 minutes of footage. That’s 25,200 feet of film, and over a million frames. They represent months of labor, and were the culmination of an entire youth and childhood spent dreaming, writing, and making art in a gutsy, non-conformist ethic. There’s no simple calculation for what happens when this material disappears. The theft triggers a rupture in the space-time continuum, spawning alternative realities and summoning ghosts. 

With no recourse for reclaiming the reels, “Shirkers” lingered on for Tan as a phantom limb. Despite her efforts to forget and move on, the movie charted its own course through time outside of present reality, occasionally reaching across the multiverse to send Tan an eerie signal. Watching films like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), Tan perceived an uncanny likeness to her own creative sensibility. Here were artists that were speaking her language, yet “Shirkers” was unable to join the conversation. The cultural impact “Shirkers” had on Singapore, the film movements it inspired, the influence it exerted, the community it fostered—all these things belong to another world, humming tantalizingly beyond an elusive barrier.


Near the beginning of the 1992 “Shirkers,” S pays a visit to her piano teacher. Extending two forefingers out from a fist, S shoots the poor woman, still in her nightie and curlers, dead. Sitting atop the piano, then cast alongside the corpse on the floor, a metronome steadily ticks, ticks, ticks.

For the 19 years that Cardona held the film reels hostage, he kept them in pristine condition, maintaining a safe, temperate storage environment. Along with the film itself, he also preserved a comprehensive archive of clippings, flyers, notebooks, audition tapes, and other ephemera related to the production. For all this, there remained one crucial thing missing: the “Shirkers” sound recordings. As Tan puts it, “Shirkers was returned to us a mute.” All archival films are collaborations across past and present. Filmmakers apply an alternative creative treatment to artifacts from another age, collapsing the intervening years in the process. Working with sound designer Lawrence Everson, Tan gives “Shirkers” a voice two decades later. But the sounds layered onto the 1992 footage don’t replace or stand in for the original recordings. Instead of recreating the logic of sync sound, an aural landscape is conjured by Tan’s memory, as her narration guides us through the “Shirkers” universe. Hyper-specific noises come into focus: cigarettes sizzle, car brakes screech, a tired dog pants. And back in the piano teacher’s apartment, we hear the metronome’s heavy ticking. It slows its tempo ever so slightly after falling to the ground, but dutifully continues keeping time.

Shirkers are people who long to escape time. By spurning society’s dictatesbe they rules, responsibilities, or piano teachersthey strive to bottle time up or outrun it. There’s a never-grow-up mentality to the shirker outlook on life, and the 1992 film celebrates childhood in its character and aesthetic. It embodies a spirit of play, full of bright colors, silliness, and getting away with things. To Tan’s mind, “Little kids had the answers to everything,” and she places high value on certain childlike qualities: fearlessness, imagination, irreverence, intuition, and mischief. Films with teen protagonists are often automatically thrown in the coming-of-age bucket. Yet “Shirkers” subverts the cliches of the genre. Whereas most coming-of-age films use narrative arcs to provide characters an on-ramp to maturity and assimilation into adulthood, Tan’s story is an escape hatch. S’s mission is to find four people she loves enough to kill, so that they can be together in an ambiguous afterlife. This plot expresses a desperation to avoid conventional social roadmaps that were especially stringent and prescribed in Singapore’s conservative, growth-oriented society. But for a teen shirker, time can be your worst enemy. The time for university, work, marriage, home ownership, and children is just a matter of tick, tick, ticks away. That’s why the fantasy “Shirkers” promised was so precious. It tells us that childish and youthful freedom can live on forever—or at least for as long as the would-be movie’s 90-minute runtime, which you could replay again and again.

Though reality presents more significant obstacles to running away from time, Tan pulls off an unconventional approach in both her life and creative process. Her biography progresses in an unexpected order. First she made a movie, then worked as a film critic, then went to film school, then wrote a novel, then returned to the unfinished movie 20 years later. Upon this return, one of Tan’s first steps before diving into story or structure was working with editor Lucas Celler on elaborate film collages. Her object was to reclaim her youthful sense of limitless creative possibility, a feeling that Cardona kidnapped along with the movie. Indulging in pure artistic play allowed Tan to reinhabit the person she was as a teenager, an essential step towards bringing Shirkers to life. Ultimately, Tan describes her documentary as “a reenactment of my teenage self…It’s kind of a strange reenactment—a reenactment of emotions.” This interpretation suggests the flexibility of time. Beyond the “Shirkers” fantasy of S stopping time in its tracks with a zap of her imaginary gun, real life need not be confined to linear paths. The “Shirkers” reels behave as a kind of time machine, opening a trap door to transport Tan back into the past.


In his 1993 essay on Singapore for Wired, American-Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson described the city-state as stuck in 1956. The conformity, moralism, and wealth he observed there echoed the postwar United States’ conservatism and economic prosperity. One tool that Singapore’s single-party system wields to maintain a wholesome, rule-following populus is media censorship, a mechanism apparent to Gibson even during his brief visit. Clearly, the Singaporean government believed in the power of counterculture; otherwise, maybe more punk, provocative art would be allowed within the city limits. As it was, Gibson was left to bemoan the country’s lack of grit: “I didn’t see a single ‘bad’ girl in Singapore. And I missed her.” 

Clearly, the man was woefully unaware of Sandi Tan. Since the late ‘80s, Tan had been cutting through Singapore’s tepid cultural scene with her and Ng’s eclectic, precocious zine, “The Exploding Cat.” The publication took remixed headlines, poems, photos, lists, jokes, strong opinions, and good taste, and fashioned them into a one-of-a-kind photocopied extravaganza. Living under censorship modifies one’s experience of time. When isolated from a free-flowing stream of cultural output that reflects artists’ and thinkers’ unfiltered responses to the world around them, time loses its footholds; it slows and stills. Fighting against this slog, Tan expended her energy tracking down art films across the border in Malaysia, or with the help of a cousin in Florida. She’d insert these hard-earned references into “The Exploding Cat,” doing her part to keep the wheels of time in her home country moving.

“Shirkers” was set up to accomplish something similar. “It’s about time,” says Philip Cheah, editor of Singaporean rock zine BigO, explaining his reaction to first hearing the news of the “Shirkers” production; the country’s underground cultural scene had been waiting for someone like Tan to come along and stir things up. As much as shirkers yearn to break away from time, the film itself was invested in keeping Singapore up to speed, running on a closer timeline to other, freer nations, who’d produced more than a couple local films (They Call Her Cleopatra Wong [1978] and Medium Rare [1991]) in the preceding 27 years.

If censorship has a way of slowing time, urban development hastens it. In this way, Singapore pulls itself backwards and forwards through time simultaneously. The country brought itself into a new era in the early days of independence with an aggressive urban planning system, coaxing people out of their communal-style kampungs (villages) and into modern high-rises. Subsequent decades saw complex, ambitious developments and land reclamation projects that consistently altered the city landscape. Certain historic buildings were set aside for preservation. But what about spots like the “Limbs & Appliances” store we see in “Shirkers,” that no authority has ordained with cultural significance, yet are key elements that make up the character of a place? The beauty parlor, railway station, and “old-timey bakery” that appear in Tan’s movie may no longer exist in today’s Singapore. They do, however, live on through Tan’s personal vision of the island, present among the curated selection of beloved, eccentric, or eye-catching locations used for the film. An idiosyncratic rather than comprehensive version of Singapore emerges, one intimately tied to that summer in 1992. In this sense, Shirkers has a classic, documentary relationship with time. It observes and bears witness, participating in that humble yet essential and often radical act of paying attention in order to communicate to the future what was here before.


While the 70 reels of the 1992 “Shirkers” embody lost time, Tan’s 2018 documentary is time regained. A camera produces pieces of time, transforming the immateriality of an instant into a tangible object; and the alchemy of the editing process creates time anew. This kind of time does not conform to the sun’s daily journey across the sky, like most ancient and modern time-keeping devices do in some form. Rather, film time is profoundly psychic and human. Leaping across decades to collaborate with a former self; alternate universes sending coded messages into your current dimension; the doldrums of waiting and the ecstasy of anticipation—this is how the heart understands time. And while nothing can truly measure it, Shirkers comes close.