Fantasia Festival presents Tiong Bahru Social Club, book tickets here.
This year has 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 everyone; for some, happiness is held in the family, while for others, it is their work or hobby. Therefore, can we really measure happiness? Or does our attempt to do so inadvertently lead to our unhappiness? These questions find a dedicated and beautiful voice in Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club – a fantasy that reflects 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 as he attempts to keep his clients happy. For Ah Bee, life is about finding a safe middle ground that never upsets the delicate balance of a life restrained by convention. But, there is a problem, Ah Bee’s happiness. His life is a slow trudge from one day to the next, his smile a mere facade, and his only happiness is found at home with his mum. His mum recognises this and feels it’s time for her son to spread his wings, gifting 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 landscapes and vibrant colours are built on a belief of shared happiness as everyone makes the community contentment their business. But, there is a condition for each new arrival, as Ah Bee is about to discover. Each young resident must become a happiness agent, supporting an older community member while their happiness level and that of their client are measured daily. Ah Bee is assigned the cynical and rebellious Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), who has more than a passing love of cats and art. Ms Wee’s apartment is full of self-painted cat portraits of every feline she has ever loved, but her love of people is far less obvious. But as Ah Bee tries his hardest to promote Ms Wee’s happiness, can a community algorithm bring joy? Or is Ah Bee about to discover that happiness is in the eye of the beholder?
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With echoes of the Netflix show Dark Mirror, Tan Bee Thiam’s film transcends many of the usual fantasy/science fiction tropes. Here, there is no sinister plot or deadly game sitting behind the community that embraces Ah Bee. Instead, we have a group of well-meaning managers who seek to use tech in building a misguided view of social perfection. In many ways, this reflects the people who sit behind the social media empires we celebrate, people who believed happiness could be built on shared communities of likes and comments. However, as we all know, social media also has a dark side that the programmers and creators never foresaw; human behaviour! Tan Bee Thiam explores how human behaviour creates unique environments, no matter the algorithm used to try and control them. Tiong Bahru Social Club takes us beyond a superficial dissection of our obsession with tech as a solution to our shared woes as it unpicks and uncovers the very foundations of well-being. Here our human need for happiness at any cost finds a dedicated voice as Tan Bee Thiam explores mental health and social anxiety.
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