“I’m never really in the right time, somehow,” novelist and filmmaker Sandi Tan tells me. “No one seems to be.”
It’s winter and gloomier than it ought to be in L.A, where Tan and her partner Graham Larkin are quarantined with their cat, Chubbs. “We drive each other insane,” she says. “He listens to podcasts, and he always has headphones on, in his own little world, so you’re talking to him and he doesn’t hear you. It’s fucking irritating.” She pauses. “Then I started listening to podcasts, so now we’re both in our own little bubbles.”
Tan’s documentary Shirkers, released by Netflix in 2018, traces her attempt to make sense of the relationship she shared with an eccentric mentor who helped her and her teenaged friends shoot a film of the same name. Shirkers announced Tan as a singularly talented storyteller, and in the subsequent years, she’s been sought out to collaborate on numerous new projects. Tan is adapting Elif Batuman’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, The Idiot; she’s working on a handful of other films that she can’t name. In the past year, for Vanity Fair, she profiled Bong Joon-Ho, the director of Parasite, which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2020, and Chloé Zhao, whose film Nomadland just nabbed Oscar nominations in six categories.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Tan has found herself homebound, working, and pursuing so-called useful distractions. She reads. She’s been thinking a lot about the 1920s, so she’s seeking out books from that decade, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. She studies old maps of L.A. She updates a journal of “all the most grotesque insults—it’s great fodder.” She pauses. “I think about murder a lot.” When I laugh, she adds, “In the general sense.”
In the early months of quarantine, Tan was able to finish a novel she’d been writing, off and on, for nearly twenty years, a dark and deeply funny domestic thriller called Lurkers. (That it rhymes with Shirkers wasn’t intentional. “I know it sounds kind of gimmicky,” she says. “I’m a sucker for one-word titles.”) Lurkers affirms Tan as a deft and impressively rangy storyteller with an unfettered imagination, eager to flay open the more disturbing aspects of human nature and suffering. One of the most haunting images involves a plane crash and “the headless body of a little girl see-sawing, half in, half out of an airplane window.”
Part of the pleasure of reading Lurkers is the queasiness of parsing the darkly comic from the just plain dark; Tan told me she enjoys “unscaring” herself by addressing her worst nightmares on the page.
Lurkers is mostly set on Santa Claus Lane, a street located in a suburban LA neighborhood lined with vintage restored Craftsman homes. It takes place a few years after 9/11, an era that cast a shadow of paranoia over America. The novel follows a clump of castoffs and loners who’ve arrived at Santa Claus Lane at different times, from disparate places—Vietnam, South Korea, Iowa. Though the evidence of their spent lives has piled up in the form of cluttered attics, old couches, unpublished manuscripts, and things left unsaid for decades, they all seem disoriented, as if they’ve somehow been displaced within their own lives.
Mary-Sue refuses to grapple with the indignities of late age or accept that a life—hers—can end without amounting to much. Her daughter Kate, who was adopted from Vietnam during the war, simmers through each day, just below boiling point, as she decides what to do about an unexpected pregnancy. Across the street lives Raymond, a formerly successful high-fantasy novelist whose exasperation with a new generation of mediocre writers has knocked him into a depressive rut.
Next door to Raymond live the novel’s most indelible characters, a pair of Korean-American teenaged sisters, Mira and Rose. Following their father’s suicide, Mira attempts to foil her mother’s plan to sell their termite-infested house, the eyesore of the upper-middle-class neighborhood, and move the family back to Korea. Rose is a few years older, and too wrapped up in her own problems to help. She’s annoyed by the fumbling affections of her over-eager boyfriend Arik, whose defining characteristic is profuse and frequent ejaculation, and infatuated with her drama club teacher, Mr. Z., who gifts her mixed CDs, drives her home from school, and placates her with dinner at Buca di Beppo. (“I love it here,” Rose gushes, unaware the restaurant is a franchise mostly known for it’s half-pound meatballs and trough-sized “family portions.”) Crucially, Mr. Z repeatedly assures Rose she possesses a rare talent for theater.
Their relationship recalls Tan’s well-documented friendship with a much older man, Georges Cardona, whom she first met in Singapore when she was eighteen and his student. Cardona’s manipulative and baffling behavior is one of Shirkers’ central puzzles. Posing as well-meaning and full of worldly insight, and with promises of professional connections he could share, Cardona convinced Tan to join him on a road trip around the US when she was nineteen. Tan maintains their friendship was platonic, but concedes Cardona was “a creep.”
It’s also more complicated than that, says Tan. While doing interviews to promote Shirkers, she resisted what she sees as a reductive and dishonest characterization of Cardona’s behavior. “We knew he was shady,” she says. “Back then, in order to get anything done, to get anyone to sign anything, to rent any kind of equipment, you needed a grown-up. We were using him. I think at some point, he felt like we were getting ahead of ourselves, getting more attention than he was, and that’s when he decided to turn the tables. That was something we hadn’t foreseen.”
The early minutes of Shirkers portray Tan’s initial artistic efforts as a rebellion both universal to her age and specific to the limitations of “uptight” Singaporean society of the late ‘80s and early ’90s. Tan and her best friend, Jasmine Ng, published a zine called The Exploding Cat. They sought out “unpopular music,” and, with the help of a cousin of Tan’s who lived in Florida, sourced copies of “weird movies” that weren’t presented in Singapore’s theaters. They liked David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and Joel and Ethan Coen. One image from The Exploding Cat bears this scrawled pledge: “We’re going to be the Coen sisters, I swear.”
In 1991, Tan and Ng enrolled in Cardona’s film class; the following year, after Cardona and Tan returned from their road trip, Tan decided to make a film with her friends. She wrote the script and starred as the heroine, a female assassin named S. Ng edited, and another friend, Sophia Siddique, was the producer. Cardona was enthusiastic about the script and directed the film; he also encouraged the trio to use their own money to fund it. The film took just over two months to shoot.
But before it could be edited, Cardona mysteriously disappeared, and took the reels with him.
After a prolonged and unsuccessful attempt to track him down, Tan and her friends drifted apart. It was clear Shirkers wouldn’t be made, at least not as they’d initially intended. The effect was arresting; Tan suffered a creative block that lasted nearly twenty years. “We got trapped in amber,” Tan says. “We were frozen as teenagers.”
Eventually, Tan moved to the UK, and then to New York City. She became a full-time film critic, then studied screenwriting at Columbia University. “I did everything backward,” she says. She began writing novels, including The Black Isle, her debut, which was published in 2012. In 2001, she moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the film industry.
In the aughts, Sandi was contacted by Cardona’s wife: Cardona was dead. While going through his belongings, she had found several film reels bearing Tan’s name. They were in perfect condition. (“Georges wrapped every reel in black plastic inside their cans and always kept them in a cool, dark place, as if they were a gorgeous, beloved cadaver!” Tan told Filmmaker Magazine.) Did she want them?
For several years, Tan wasn’t sure what to do with the footage. Once she understood that she needed to tell the full story of Shirkers—how it was made, its disappearance, how it found its way back to her, and how its absence irrevocably altered her as an artist—editing the documentary took only eight months.
The opening of Shirkers demonstrates the collapse and suspension of time as Tan experienced it in the years when the film was lost to her. The first scenes unspool lushly, in near-lurid saturation: a swan glides across a placid lake; the image flickers, and the swan glides backward, as if caught in a caesura. A series of figures appear and seem to vanish: a woman ascending a narrow, tiled stairway; three children in masks; a woman in a nurse costume dancing with an unusually tall gray dog. Over all of this, Tan narrates: “When I was eighteen, a long time ago now, I had the idea…that you had to go backwards in order to go forwards…I find myself replaying the past, looking for clues.”
When Shirkers premiered at Sundance in 2018, Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. Writing for Vulture, filmmaker Emily Yoshida described it as “strange, engrossing, and often ravishingly beautiful…It sends you wondering at all the wild creativity and genius of young irrepressible women lost to time, held up or buried by the domineering egos of men.” Richard Brody, the film critic for The New Yorker, recently declared it one of the best documentaries of all time.
Stuck at home and waiting for Lurkers to be released amidst a pandemic, Tan is restless. “You feel like a child again,” she says, “All these stupid activities.” She hates cooking, but she does because the only thing she hates more is eating bad food. She and Larkin take walks to the park near her house to bring snacks to the stray cats who live there: “We’re still doing a final count, but there’s like twenty, at least.”
Mostly, though, Tan writes. She’s focused on the adaptation of The Idiot, about a young woman named Selin trying to figure out how to be a person during her freshman year at Harvard. It’s the 1990s, so a lot of Selin’s torment is directed at an invention called email; the rest of it is about an older classmate, Ivan, a skillfully subtle manipulator.
“I think one of the reasons why people are drawn to both Shirkers and The Idiot is that it has happened to a lot of women—you’re dealing with someone who’s not overtly evil in the Harvey Weinstein way,” Tan says. “But they’ve done these things, bit by bit, they’re chipping away at your sense of—you start doubting yourself. You start thinking, is it you who’s crazy? I mean, that’s the original gaslighting, right?”
After she viewed Shirkers, Batuman recognized Tan’s preoccupation with adolescence as very similar to her own. They were both “dealing as adults with material that had stymied us in a very painful way at that super-important moment in late adolescence,” Batuman says. Both women created their works from material they’d begun when they were between eighteen and twenty years old. Both needed nearly twenty years to complete them. Both were set in motion by relationships with shitty men.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business about that guy. She hasn’t really gotten him out of her system yet.” Tan says, remarking on the real-life events that inspired Batuman’s fictional Ivan. It occurs to me that she could just as well be describing her own fixation with Cardona.
In Lurkers, when Rose confesses to Mr. Z that she’s been plotting all along to get something from him, too, he rebuffs her. Unable to trust a teenage girl with ideas of her own, Mr. Z reveals a violent, destructive nature that would seem outrageous if it didn’t also demonstrate how completely he understands how he has harmed Rose.
“We got lucky,” Tan tells me about what happened with Cardona. Later, I realized her statement can be understood two ways: first, she’s glad he was “just” a creep; she understands that many women aren’t so fortunate. Second, she relishes what she’s been able to create from that experience, a kinetic and deeply recursive body of work that asserts the most liberating period in any artist’s life is the time before anyone takes them seriously.