Tiong Bahru Social Club is a new venue in Singapore that aims to be the country’s first social club dedicated to live music. The venue has been open for just over a month and has already attracted a diverse crowd of locals and expats alike.
The film festivals 2021 is a film festival that will be held in Singapore. It will showcase films from around the world and give audiences an opportunity to watch different types of films.
Tan Bee Thiam, a Singaporean producer-turned-director, has embarked on a journey to discover the essence of genuine happiness. In 2015, he collaborated with co-director Lei Yuan Bin to adapt the play Fundamentally Happy onto the big screen for the first time. While his first movie and solo directorial debut, Tiong Bahru Social Club, addresses serious issues like abuse with proper seriousness, his second feature and solo directorial debut, Tiong Bahru Social Club, swings the pendulum to a complete sarcastic comedy. This time, Tan is in complete command, presenting the tale of Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), a 30-year-old mama’s boy who has just been hired as a Happiness Agent at the eponymous institution, a position that entails conducting group workshops and looking after the jaded Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han). The club uses a sophisticated algorithm to decide everything in the lives of the employees and senior residents, from activities to sexual partners, by quantifying their happiness. Those who do not contribute enough to the Gross Community Happiness Index will be dismissed. Ah Bee seems to be the ideal match at first, but he soon begins to wonder whether he is really content.
In the beginning of the film, Ah Bee’s mother Mui (Goh Guat Kian) is shown practicing with a sword in a park. Several robbers in speedos and facemasks rush by her with stolen paintings and are almost beheaded by the aloof woman’s joyful swinging as the amusing music and titles play. The scene generates the first of the film’s numerous laughs, although it is ultimately insignificant in the larger scheme of things. The same can be said about the narrative of Tiong Bahru Social Club as a whole, which constantly seems like it’s dancing around making bigger statements about manufactured pleasure and the unquantifiable truth of human emotions, but never quite gets there. Tan’s film has a weak plot, at times resembling a series of sketches in which everyone save Ah Bee grins as they do something odd.
The narrative revolves on Thomas Pang, although he is supposed to be a rather passive and untalkative character who is mainly forced to quietly reacting to his strange job. Pang, on the other hand, manages to portray him with endearing honesty and makes the most of the character as written. Although Ah Bee has a personal development throughout the film, he also serves as a conduit for an audience alienated by happy individuals whose sincerity we can’t help but question. The spectator may even secretly yearn for their phony grins to fall away, revealing the void underneath. Those masks do come off sometimes, but only when it’s necessary to avoid disrupting the flow of jokes. Tiong Bahru Social Club aims to make the audience laugh rather than weep, but it falls short of the comedy/tragedy balance seen in the greatest satire dramas.
Tan’s ability to make us laugh is admirable, given his goals of having a relaxed, fun time. He directs the picture with a tangible sense of kinetic energy, peppering it with a wide range of physical and verbal jokes to keep it boiling. Ah Bee’s one-sided discussions with his virtual helper BRAVO60 (Joe Augustin) to a cartoon Kama Sutra are only a few examples. Tan’s willingness to depart from the reality of the film for both occasional jokes and some softer moments, such as when both Ah Bee and his mother are positioned on the same bed together staring forward as they talk on the phone with each other, gives the entire endeavor an admirable sense of creative freedom. These are some of Tiong Bahru Social Club’s most memorable moments—unpredictable and using the creative medium’s potential in a manner that few comedians do today. Tan’s stunning imagery and color palette add to the enthralling nature of each scene. The work of cinematographer/editor Looi Wan Ping and production designer James Page is particularly noteworthy; their work bursts with vibrant colors and creates a unified, near-futuristic look that is both calming and thrilling. Each shot captures the joy the actors and crew must have felt while putting the movie together.
It’s hard to see Tiong Bahru Social Club without being reminded of a slew of other directors. Tan has mentioned Wes Anderson, Yasujir Ozu, Jacques Tati, and Yoji Yamada as direct inspirations on the film in numerous interviews. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s two-dimensional architectural grandeur and Good Morning’s soft hues and tranquil framing seem to have influenced him the most. Tan makes clear allusions to several of the filmmakers, such as filming one of Ah Bee’s early conversations with his mother head-on, as Ozu famously did. Many parallels have been drawn between his film and Black Mirror, but Tiong Bahru Social Club seems more like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster’s bright and cheerful other ego, particularly when the film concentrates on Ah Bee’s AI-paired romance and controlled lovemaking with fellow Happiness Agent Geok (Jo Tan). Tan’s inability to separate himself from his inspirations in order to carve out a more distinctive style is sad, but the film’s aesthetics are a hopeful indication that he may eventually find his own voice.
Tiong Bahru Social Club is like a brilliantly colored piece of candy—delicious and full of ephemeral flavor, but lacking in certain key elements of a balanced meal. Tan Bee Thiam’s collage of highly inspired images needed a more fleshed-out screenplay to focus on the philosophical themes it attempts to handle. While the short 88-minute comedy may seem to have more to say than it really does, it does no damage and will brighten the viewer’s day if they keep their expectations in check. Tiong Bahru Social Club is an entertaining trip worth supporting as Singapore’s only participation for NYAFF’s 2021 roster.