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 family and, for others, 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, with his need to ensure clients remain happy central to everything he does. For Ah Bee, life is about finding a safe middle road while never upsetting the delicate balance of life. But, there is a problem, Ah Bee’s personal happiness. In truth, Ah Bee’s life is a slow trudge from one day to the next, his smile a mere facade, his only happiness his home life 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; here, the art deco landscape and vibrant colours are built on a belief in shared happiness as everyone makes the communities happiness 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. As a result, 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 clear. 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, no sinister plot or deadly game is 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. However, as we all know, social media also had a dark side that the programmers and creators never foresaw; human behaviour!
Tan Bee Thiam understands how human behaviour creates environments no matter the algorithm used to try and control them. Here, Tiong Bahru Social Club takes us beyond a superficial dissection of our obsession with tech as a solution to our shared woes. Instead, it speaks to our very notion of well-being and our relentless drive to be happy even when we are screaming inside. The more we try to force our well-being, the further we descend into a world of poor mental health and social anxiety.
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Tan Bee Thiam never attempts to provide easy solutions to the social questions he raises in Ah Bee’s journey. Instead, he offers us a complex, humourous human journey where happiness is within individual control rather than collective instruction. Here we are presented with three essential questions. Does the social media algorithm in your pocket make you feel good? Are your down days just as important as your up days? And finally, who decides what makes you happy?
As the credits roll and we ponder these questions, one thing is undeniable, Tan Bee Thiam’s film is a near-perfect joy. Tan Bee Thiam, just like Wes Anderson, knows how to reflect humanity’s rich and complex building blocks through engaging, humourous and vibrant storytelling, and while he may leave us with more questions than he answers, Tiong Bahru Social Club is a film that lingers in your mind long after leaving the cinema.