As a wacky satire on Singaporeans’ pursuit of (a regulated kind of) happiness, this genial comedy might just as well be science-fiction—or not.
Dir. Tan Bee Thiam
2020 | Singapore | Comedy | 88 mins | 1.85: 1 | English & other various languages
NC16 (passed clean) for some sexual references
Cast: Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan
Plot: Ah Bee goes on a comedic odyssey through Tiong Bahru Social Club, a data-driven project to create the happiest neighborhood in the world. Little by little, his encounters with the neighborhood’s residents reveal the absurdity of life.
Awards: Official Selection (Busan)
Source: 13 Little Pictures
Subject Matter: Light – Happiness, Community
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: The Projector
Strange as it seems, as I was watching Tiong Bahru Social Club, flashes of Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love (2019) crossed my mind—for instance, the surreal and at times intoxicating use of lighting and colour; its satirical qualities (though the latter’s pointedness is towards politics and religion); and a conceptually-similar lovemaking sequence that couldn’t have been more opposite to each other in execution.
In Mascaro’s work, two couples explicitly copulate in various positions which leaves nothing to the imagination, but in Tan Bee Thiam’s first solo directing effort, he imaginatively employs trippy animation to similar effect. Well, after all, it’s Singapore, and this is a genial comedy at heart.
A wacky satire on Singaporeans’ pursuit of (a regulated kind of) happiness, Tiong Bahru Social Club might just as well be science-fiction—or not. Thomas Pang plays Ah Bee, a young man living with his doting mom (Goh Guat Kian) who finds a new job at the ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’ as a Happiness Agent.
Hoping to make others happy and be happy himself, while being subjected to the whims and fancies of the social (science) club’s seemingly nefarious number-crunching data analysts, Ah Bee and his gregarious HAL 9000-esque companion, attempt to navigate this quaint neighbourhood space.
As a film, it may sometimes feel slight, though that is natural considering it privileges the whimsical journey that Ah Bee undertakes rather than the need to achieve a deeper, transformative experience for the character.
The picture’s numerous references to the en bloc of Singapore’s architecturally-iconic Pearl Bank Apartments are interesting, not just considering the building’s visual importance in the film (a sentimental record for posterity if you will), but also as a reminder that the fate of an old beloved building (ironically evaluated by numbers) could very well be connected to the concept of an individual’s, a community’s and a nation’s happiness.
As Singapore modernises further, ancient buildings left standing in the cosmopolitan city may be the last physical marker of our historical reality that no image, however well-intentioned, can ever dream of capturing.
With the Pearl Bank Apartments now demolished, the dreamer might see its absence not as destruction, but of ascension, much like how that structure in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) rocketed into space. Well, as I said, Tan’s work, like Jia’s film, may or may not be science-fiction.
There are few films in Singapore cinema quite like Tiong Bahru Social Club in its satirical tone and humour, which is more Cetaphil than Dettol. Perhaps that is the message—that it is not about weeding out everything that doesn’t bring happiness, but to seek for its gentler, more compassionate form, which is contentment.
Yet, can contentment really apply to us mood-swinging Singaporeans?