Tiong Bahru Social Club (Singapore, 2020) [NYAFF 2021]

Tan Bee Thiam is perhaps best known for having established the Asian Film Archive in Singapore in 2005. But with his directorial debut Tiong Bahru Social Club, which he co-wrote with Antti Toivonen, Tan has made a disarming film in keeping with his earlier archiving impulse. As the title indicates, the film’s primary setting is the Tiong Bahru section of Singapore. For a film whose story is set in an ambiguous period of the near/distant future as well as the recent/distant past, Tiong Bahru is ideal in the sense that it embodies a distinct history through its development and buildings while these very things have been subjected to facelifts since the 1950s-1960s. Part of Tiong Bahru’s distinct history is that it was the site of the first set of public housing in Singapore and a number of its buildings showcase the notable style of architecture known as Streamline Moderne (an offshoot of Art Deco).

Lest one think that Tiong Bahru Social Club is simply a travelogue of the area’s history and architecture, however, the film centers on Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) who becomes a member of the Tiong Bahru Social Club on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. Consequently, he moves from home to the club’s premises and becomes a “Happiness Agent” in training, thus joining what turns out to be a rather insular community set on the maintenance and increase of its senior residents’ “gross community happiness” and those of its agents based on algorithms and micromanagement. Setting Ah Bee’s clunky and at times vacillating adaptation to the club’s routine pursuit of happiness and fulfillment against the vibrant colours of the film’s production design and costumes, Tan presents a thoughtful and endearingly oddball meditation upon happiness, particularly finding one’s own sense of the term in relation to others’ understanding (or even imposition) of it.

Part of the film’s endearing quality is due to theatre actor Pang as Ah Bee, who manages to convey in face and body the gentle tug between a can-do attitude and enthusiasm to be a Happiness Agent and a slight and growing uneasiness about the ways in which the club’s project of happiness ironically makes no room for personal feeling or desire; and all with minimal dialogue. Upon arriving at the club, he is first given an orientation by supervisor Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohamed) and gifted a “happiness ring” that monitors the status of his emotional state. Once in his apartment, he is greeted by a kind of A.I. valet that is meant to detect any practical needs, or even suggest them. Ah Bee is then assigned a senior client, Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han), a cat-loving cynical and tell-it-like-it-is woman, to help her on the path towards happiness and thereby contribute to the “gross community happiness.” Along the way, Ah Bee gets to know other agents. Most significant among them are Geok (Jo Tan), who reigns as the top contributor to the happiness index, and Orked (Muna Bagharib), who also ranks high on the leaderboard yet in brief moments with Ah Bee shares how elements about the club’s ideology rankle her; significant in that they nicely represent the two sides of Ah Bee’s attitude towards being at the club, alongside Ms. Wee. On the happiness leaderboard, Ah Bee’s own place is initially less than desired. But with the can-do attitude of his self prevailing, he plugs aways to eventually fulfill the program projected for his own happiness. However discomfiting, suspicious, or even lackluster it may be for the spectator to see Ah Bee roped in to a version of happiness that is not entirely of his own making, Pang’s take on Ah Bee with child-like curiosity à la Buster Keaton helps the film from becoming too monotonous.

Perhaps such an effect is intentional. For the film’s most heartfelt and memorable moments take place outside of the club and between Ah Bee and his mother Mui (Guat Kian Goh), with whom he has been living up to his thirtieth birthday. Within the club and eventually outside it, Ah Bee and Orked’s interactions also stand out for the basic quality of exchanging feelings instead of numbers, calculations, or program goals. That it is Orked who makes the decision to resign and leave the club to engage with the outside world is also a lovely nod to the late Yasmin Ahmad, whose “Orked” trilogy (2005-2006) centers on a young, strong-minded character of the same name who carves out her own principles of what makes her happy and presents a dynamic portrait of family and society in past and present Malaysia. In an interview, Tan relates that it was Ahmad who had recommended Yoji Yamada’s Tora-san films (1969-1995) that depict the everyday lives of average citizens, which were an influence on Tiong Bahru Social Club. The film’s other nods are to Jacques Tati’s and Ozu Yasujiro’s color films, most evident in the production design and framing yet arguably also in the subtlety with which emotions move across the narrative, characters, and built environment.

On this last note, the film’s use of Tiong Bahru’s striking buildings is ultimately not just for the sake of putting them on the screen. In accompanying Ah Bee’s journey in the Tiong Bahru Social Club, for which some of the post-Asia Pacific War HDB (Housing and Development Board) blocks built in the Streamline Moderne style served as the premises, the more specific themes of happiness (or otherwise) with community life, historical consciousness, and nostalgia in relation to urban spaces emerge. The intertwining of these themes is most poignantly visualised not in Tiong Bahru but through the famous Pearl Bank Apartments, which were designed by Tan Cheng Siong and built in 1976 and demolished in March 2020.

Tiong Bahru Social Club was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 7 & 8.