Written by Patrick Hao
Over the last 20 years, the Tiong Bahru region of Singapore, one of the oldest urban public housing estates, has gone through massive development and gentrification. The demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartments in March of 2020 in favor of a new sleek high-rise condominium, despite conservation efforts, is emblematic of the gentrification of Tiong Bahru. This tension of the rapid modernization of Singapore is at the heart of Tan Bee Thiam’s absurdist satire, Tiong Bahru Social Club.
The film follows newly turned 30-year-old, Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), a resident of the Pearl Bank Apartments with his mother. He sees an ad for a job as a Happiness Agent at the newly created Tiong Bahru Social Club, a pilot program for an elder community run by an algorithm to ensure ultimate happiness. Every action is assessed and given a happiness rating, as the algorithm dictates both the residents and Happiness Agents’ lives.
Ah Bee as a happiness agent is paired with an AI companion, Bravo60, who is meant to be a motivator and to remind Ah Bee when to eat cake, to help Ms. Wee (Jalyn Hae), one of the elder residents of the community. The algorithm also matches Ah Bee with a data-sanctioned love interest, another happiness agent by the name of Geok (Jo Tan). However, none of the data-driven decisions instills any happiness in Ah Bee, as he struggles to find a position within the community.
Thiam and his Looi Wan Ping shot the whole film with muted pastel colors to highlight the faux cheeriness of the community. Ah Bee keeps a gilded smile on his face but cannot hide the depression that underlies his disposition. The world building is a real strength of the film. In a way the vibe is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Michel Gondry, directors who use the artificiality of their retro-futurist magical realism to accentuate the sadness beneath the whimsy.
The satire here feels distinctly Singaporean and may require some additional research (like I did) to understand all the themes underlying what Thiam is doing with his film. However, the feelings of dissatisfaction of this late capitalist global economy are very universal. What may be true to the residents of Singapore and Tiong Bahru could easily be transplanted to my hometown of Flushing, New York.
The film’s deconstruction of daily Singaporean life seems authentic but even I, an outsider, get a sense that the critique does not go far enough. There’s not enough venom in its satire and the film gets too reliant on the tweeness of its premise and visual motif. Ah Bee is purposefully a blank slate of a character which renders his decisions to lack agency. While that may be the point, he never gains any meaningful autonomy that really drives home the ending.
But there is a lot to admire in Thiam’s social satire. He is a confident filmmaker with a clear point of view and sense of style. And if anything, Tiong Bahru Social Club serves as tribute to those of Tiong Bahru who have been left behind and dissatisfied by a Singapore that has passed them by.
Tiong Bahru Social Club Trailer