Film Review: ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’ is a Dazzling Tribute to Singapore’s Oldest Housing Estate
Ah Bee goes on a comedic odyssey through Tiong Bahru Social Club, a data-driven project to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world. Little by little, his encounters with the neighbourhood’s residents reveal the absurdity of life.
Director: Tan Bee Thiam
Cast: Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan
Language: English, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, Cantonese
Runtime: 88 minutes
Tiong Bahru Social Club feels like a tech demo. While the film’s story feels unrefined and unpointed, its lustrous visuals, excellent soundtrack, and gorgeous cinematography remain ever-engaging throughout. Unlike any other, the film shatters any preconceived notions there are about what Singapore film can (or should) look like, giving us a potential glimpse of local cinema’s future.
The solo directorial debut of Tan Bee Thiam, Tiong Bahru Social Club imagines a data-driven programme aimed at creating the world’s happiest neighbourhood. Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), an easy-going 30-year-old, heads over to the club as its newest happiness agent, tasked together with a team to bring joy to Tiong Bahru’s elderly residents. Despite a tailored algorithm, happiness is seemingly beyond reach for Ah Bee within the club’s pastel-coloured walls.
Given the apparent similarities, the film will find it hard to escape comparisons to Wes Anderson’s works. One-point perspectives, deadpan humour, quirky characters and sets – they are all here. Tiong Bahru Social Club does well in translating this visual flair to the local landscape while injecting its own personality to the formula.
The colourful and enchantingly tacky world within the club blends almost perfectly with the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, adding an air of whimsy to an already beautiful estate. It feels like the film’s fantastical sets and costumes are in service of bringing across the neighbourhood’s magic rather than the other way around.
All of it is warmly captured with a keen camera eye and a multitude of engrossing shot compositions, accompanied by a spectacular synth-driven soundtrack in the background. It would feel almost criminal to experience all the visual and sonic charm Tiong Bahru Social Club has to offer outside of the theatres.
The film is mainly carried by its strong art direction. With its critique of technology’s encroachment into modern life, Tiong Bahru Social Club will also inevitably draw comparisons to television series Black Mirror. On this count, however, the film struggles to say anything more than what has already been said about technology’s limits and ill-effects.
Mood-wise, Tiong Bahru Social Club is constantly caught in between its two key comparisons, shining most when it goes all the way with one or the other. The film never reaches out for biting criticism as much as it is satisfied with settling on a level voice. Kooky television commercials promoting the club and oddball workshops are a bunch of over-the-top fun but they stand-out amidst the film’s mild-mannered temper.
Equally mild-mannered is the film’s lead, whose deliberately-written passiveness does make Ah Bee feel like a passenger to his own story. However, the cast’s all-around delightful performances do make for fun character moments.
The chirpy facade of the happiness agents is pierced and humanised with Orked (Munah Bagharib) and Geok (Jo Tan) – the latter of whom Ah Bee develops an awkwardly fun algorithm-driven romance with. The rebellious, cat-obsessed auntie Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), who is under the care of Ah Bee, also steals every scene she is in. All three actresses deliver stand-out performances despite their stories being largely left unresolved.
Nevertheless, it would be hard not to be swept away by the visual treats offered here, and even more difficult not to be inspired by the care put into Tiong Bahru Social Club. Every frame is meticulously and lovingly crafted, making me wish I spent more time with the film than its brief 88 minutes allowed. Tiong Bahru Social Club’s dazzling style looks to be a crowd-winner.
The 31st edition of the Singapore International Film Festival kicked off with a sold-out screening of its opening film Tiong Bahru Social Club. The film will see its wide release islandwide on 10 December.
– Interview: Emily Hoe, Executive Director, Singapore International Film Festival 2020
– Film Review: 80s Nostalgia Runs High in Jack Neo’s Latest ‘The Diam Diam Era’
– Interview: Ong Kuo Sin 王国燊, Director of Golden Horse Award-nominated Film ‘Number 1’《男儿王》