Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)

Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)

Director (and co-writer): Bee Thiam Tan

Cast: Thomas Pang, Guat Kian Goh, Jalyn Han, Jo Tan, Munah Bagharib, Noorlinah Mohamed

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. – IMDB

Tiong Bahru is a Singaporean comedy film set in Tiong Bahru in a little community that aims to build an algorithm that will generate the most happiness whether its the people, the employees or the environment and activities offered right down to an AI in the room that tries to keep them positive. Yet, this world with all the colorful pastel environment and the smiles at every corner points out a very odd and awkward vibe where happiness is an inner thing and not so much one based on an algorithm.

While its easy to see influences of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Paradise Hills or video game We Happy Few (in a less sinister way), whether its from a visual style, color palette or even tone, Tiong Bahru feels a lot more simple and even odd. Perhaps when any community tries to create happiness, it always feels a little overdone and forced and that brings a lot of awkwardness and yet, as the main character Ah Bee leaves his current job to be an employee at the Tiong Bahru Social Club, his already rather simple life with his mother becomes even less fulfilling despite all the positive remarks from his AI or the happy co-workers around him and the happiness workshops, his assigned client Mrs. Wee, an elderly woman who loves cats and thinks of herself as a cat but is very sarcastic about the entire social club concept. As rude and direct that Mrs. Wee is towards everyone, she is almost the anchor of reality in this community and because of that, her character is one that stands out. Much like the two female co-workers Orked and Geok who each of have their own roles in his life with the former having some odd but feels natural and happy interactions versus Geok which eventually is deemed as his “perfect match” and is an awkward interaction where they follow the rules to pursue a happy relationship right down to a nifty little animated scene about having sex.

The film in general focuses on the main character Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) who shares his inner thoughts and remains fairly quiet throughout with the others around him about his thoughts on society and how that’s changed his view of life from the modern society providing too many options that create a difficulty to make decisions to viewing a simple party question of shoot, shag and marry into a philosophical question. Ah Bee is a character in all his oddities and awkwardness. He feels like a person that wants to please those around and trying to break out of his normal routine life to find a whole other sort of routine life in the Social Club that allows him to finally make a decision. Thomas Pang does a great job at carrying this role throughout as there are some very odd moments and probably his most notable connection is with the Tiong Bahru cat (I honestly remember it being how they addressed the cat) which leads to an fantastic scene of him eventually getting a bunch of elderly residents helping him look for a cat. Being a cat person, its both funny and heartwarming. Especially when all these residents were initially there to talk to him about complaints. So much for being a happy community when you think about all the random complaints everyone has.

Tiong Bahru Social Club is a pretty fun film. In reality, it never really feels like there’s any turning point or whatnot to Ah Bee’s slice of life working and living in this community but when he decides to leave, that probably is where the character’s subtle changes in his mentality is most vibrant. Perhaps not exactly an exciting movie to watch for many as there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on and even the science fiction, while some parts making it feel a little suspicious, isn’t exactly fleshed out except for the technology that runs the social club. However, the visuals, color palette and the cinematography sets a pretty decent mood for this film. In all its deeper messages about modern society and happiness, Tiong Bahru Social Club is a rather feel-good sort of film.

*Tiong Bahru Social Club is screening on demand on Fantasia Festival’s virtual platform throughout the festival from August 5th to 25th. You can check out the info HERE.*

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