Film Review: Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)

Collective happiness has become a chimeric goal of governance. Nonetheless, with the rise of Big Data, some have made attempts to achieve it. Bhutan has established its own “Gross Domestic Happiness Index” as a means of evaluating it. Meanwhile, the World Database of Happiness (WDoH) boasts a research network that can holistically tabulate a population’s “subjective well-being”. 

For the 2020 WDoH report, Singapore was ranked the second happiest country in Asia, second only to Taiwan. To an outsider, the reasons seem obvious. High degrees of political and economic stability give little reason to be upset. It’s easy to get caught up by such glittering generalities when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone has their own foibles and grievances. It’d be futile to attribute happiness to a fixed number of factors. 

Sadly, such nuances are of little concern to a statistical chart. After all, you can’t determine a correlation if everyone’s an outlier. How then do we measure the immeasurable? This is the central question that anchors Tan Bee Thiam’s solo directorial debut, Tiong Bahru Social Club.

The eponymous cult plays out like a microcosm of Singapore, where happiness is quantified and micromanaged like stocks. While comparisons with Black Mirror are inevitable, Tiong Bahru Social Club is neither a cautionary tale nor a work of dystopian fiction. Instead, Tan casts a comedic spotlight on the subject, crafting a caricature of reality. It’s a light hearted tale of disillusionment that has its fair share of social insight. Although, the film offers more questions than answers by the time it cuts to black. 

The story follows Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), an affectionate 30 year old who lives with his Mother, Mui (Goh Guat Kian) in the now-demolished Pearl Bank Apartments. At work he’s swarmed by mounds of paperwork. At home he’s a passive onlooker to the en bloc process enveloping his apartment. In spite of his age, Bee’s sheepish smile and wide-eyed gaze betray a boyish innocence.

On his 30th birthday, Mui nudges him to join the Tiong Bahru Social Club, a pilot programme that promises a life in the happiest neighbourhood in the world. It’s a pastel coloured suburb where its members live under Orwellian surveillance. Even their actions and emotions are governed by an Artificial Intelligence that’s more “A” than “I”.

Notably, the look and feel of the Club’s utopian backdrop can be accredited to production designer James Page. Page is best known for his work on Apprentice (2016) and A Land Imagined (2018). Here, he provides a neon-soaked setting that feels just as mechanical as the people who inhabit it. The comparisons to a Wes Anderson picture are fitting.

Bee is welcomed by the operation’s ardent ringleader, Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohamed) who lays out his job scope. As a “Happiness Agent”, Bee is to care for residents of the club in order to contribute to the community’s “Happiness Index”. Should he outperform his peers, he stands a chance to be promoted. Should his performance be sub par, he risks being ousted from their operation. It’s a rat race we’re all too familiar with.

Unfortunately, Bee is a protagonist with little to no agency. What the algorithm says, he does. What others ask of him, he abides. It’s little wonder that he finds himself trapped in a system he’d sought to escape.

Bee is tasked with taking care of Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), with whom he forms a close bond. She’s a jaded resident with an affinity for felines. Han’s comedic performance will easily be a highlight for many. Her cynicism serves as a foil to Bee’s curiosity and childlike optimism.

He’s also joined by a vibrant cast of other Agents, who further challenge his notion of happiness. The most compelling being Orked (Munah Bagharib), whose facade is deconstructed over the course of the film. The journey she undergoes mirrors that of Bee’s. She’s one of the only members who questions the sincerity of their actions. She’s also one of the only characters whose plot line gets resolved.

Others are props at best, popping up every now and then to provide comedic relief. Even Bee’s short lived love interest Geok (Jo Tan), doesn’t receive any closure by the final act.

Under the veneer of paradise, Bee uncovers individuals discontent with the minutiae of everyday life. He slowly finds less meaning in the optimistic mantras spouted by the algorithm. All of this leads to his decision to return home. While there are reasons to guess why he would, it’s never revealed why he did.

For one, there isn’t a clear point where the straw had broken the camel’s back. Bee never has an epiphany or a moment of rebellion. Even his final decision is met with little resistance. As a result, the whole affair appears to be an excursion rather than an escapade.

Given the film’s short runtime, I can only wonder if anything crucial was left on the cutting room floor. Granted, Bee’s passive quietude doesn’t offer much insight into his mind. Knowing this, the filmmakers littered a few lines of narration, though it often comes off as an afterthought.

That isn’t to say that the film fails to get its point across. Despite its loose ends, there's still a lot for the mind to chew on. Tiong Bahru Social Club speaks of our over reliance on technology to affirm our beliefs. It speaks of how inorganic our relationships have become as a result. Above all, it speaks of the futility of engineered happiness.

This brings us back to the central question: how can we evaluate happiness? As far as the film is concerned, we don’t know, or at the very least, we can’t. Much like Bee, viewers may find themselves back where they started, with the answer no less ambiguous than it was before.

Written by Charlie Chua

The film premieres in Singapore as the opening film of the 31st Singapore International Film Festival today.
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