Fantasia Festival presents Tiong Bahru Social Club, book tickets here.
This year has once again seen Finland crowned the happiest place in the world. But, what is happiness? And how do we measure it? In truth, the concept of happiness differs for every one of us. For some, happiness is held in family, for others their work while some may find it in cooking, books or a good film. Therefore, a question arises, can we really measure individual happiness? And does our attempt to do so inadvertently lead to unhappiness? These questions find a dedicated, loving and beautiful voice in Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club. His delightful mix of comedy, fantasy and drama reflecting both the complexity, colour, and humour of Wes Anderson and the composition and style of Yasujirō Ozu.
Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) spends his days dealing with complaints, his need to ensure others remain happy, leading him to agree to every demand that comes across his desk. For Ah Bee, life is about finding a safe middle road, never upsetting the balance while keeping those around him happy. But, there is a problem with this: Ah Bee’s happiness. His own needs, sidelined in favour of those of others. His life, a slow trudge from one day to the next, his smile a mere facade. But, one thing that does make Ah Bee happy is his home life with his mum. However, feeling her son needs to spread his wings, Ah Bee’s mum gives him an elusive invite to join the Tiong Bahru Social Club for his thirtieth birthday.
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Tiong Bahru Social Club is an exclusive gated community in Singapore. Its art deco landscape and vibrant colours, built on a belief in shared happiness among its residents. Here, happiness is everyone’s business as the community emphasises unity. But, there is a condition attached to Ah Bee’s arrival, for each young resident must become a happiness agent, supporting an allocated older community member. Their lives, measured daily by a special algorithm that records their happiness level.
On arrival, Ah Bee is assigned to the cynical and rebellious Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), who has more than a passing love of cats and art. Her apartment, full of self-painted cat portraits of every feline she has ever loved. But, while Ah Bee tries his hardest to promote Ms Wee’s happiness, it’s clear the older lady sees right through him. In addition, Ah Bee’s life outside of work is regulated by an incredibly polite piece of A.I. His every waking hour, recorded, analysed and measured as the community managers strive to achieve complete, undiluted happiness for all. But, can an algorithm bring joy? Or, as Ah Bee is about to discover, is happiness in the eye of the beholder.
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While echoing many of the science fiction themes of Netflix’s Dark Mirror, Tan Bee Thiam’s film also transcends its fantasy/science fiction roots. Here, there is no sinister plot or deadly games that sit behind the community. Instead, we have a group of well-meaning managers who merely seek to embrace tech in building a misguided view of social perfection. In many ways, this reflects the people who so often sit behind social media empires. Their concept of happiness and community, built on likes, shares and statistical data. Their constructed communities, nothing but a giant social experiment on the power of tech in manipulating human behaviour.
Meanwhile, Tan Bee Thiam also points his lens at our obsession with activities that aim to increase individual wellbeing. And as someone who once had to sit through an hour of laughter therapy, I can tell you; it was no happiness-inducing experience. Here, Tiong Bahru Social Club goes far beyond dissecting our modern world’s tech-driven likes and shares. It speaks to our very notions of personal wellbeing and our relentless drive to be happier in a world where sadness is perceived as harmful and damaging. And yet, the more we try to force our wellbeing, the further we descend into a world of poor mental health and social anxiety. Equally brilliant is Thiam’s cutting dissection of workplace culture; the individual redundant as the collective march to a set of key performance indicators. With creativity and difference, only allowed if they fit the collective vision.
Tan Bee Thiam never attempts to provide us with easily defined solutions to these social questions. But, what he does offer us is Ah Bee’s delightful, humourous and human journey. A journey where happiness ultimately sits within his control, not others. As a result, we find ourselves presented with three essential questions. Does the social media algorithm in your pocket really make you feel good? Are your down days just as important as your up days? And finally, who decides what makes you happy?.
As we ponder these questions as the credits roll, one thing is undeniable, Tan Bee Thiam’s film is pure joy. Its creativity, performances, cinematography and score, nothing short of stunning. And as for the comparison to one Wes Anderson, all I can say is this. There’s a new talent in town, and Tan Bee Thiam, just like Anderson, knows how to reflect humanity’s rich and complex building blocks through engaging, humourous and vibrant storytelling.