Film Review: ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
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
Written by Goh Kai En
Deeply philosophical and highly entertaining, Tiong Bahru Social Club is an understated black comedy whose charm lies in what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does.
We follow Ah Bee, a 30-year-old man who takes up a new job as a “happiness agent” with Tiong Bahru Social Club, a community project that strives to make the happiest neighbourhood. To accomplish this, the Club makes full use of technology and artificial intelligence, gathering data to rigidly plan out how best to make the residents of Tiong Bahru happy. As Ah Bee spends more time here, he grows more accustomed to the social club and the life that awaits him here (all part of the Club’s plan). Despite all this, Ah Bee still has one question on his mind – is he truly happy?
Tiong Bahru Social Club is a local film with one of the more unique and riveting premises, and an excellent story to follow suit. Director Tan Bee Thiam not only dreams up a beautifully imaginative alternate Singapore, but also aptly weaves in essences of realism to satirise familiar Singaporean traits. Throughout, Tan manages to balance the fun and humorous moments with the more deeply reflective ones. The latter rarely feels out of place, and there is no striking tonal disconnect in the story.
The idiom “the devil lies in the details” is an apt descriptor for Tiong Bahru Social Club. This film deals with subtleties – that is to say, more is being told through implicitness. The true messages of the story, hidden in subtext, are delivered to you as such. Throughout, the film discusses the philosophical idea of happiness. These highly philosophical questions are not directly brought up as points of discussion between characters; rather, they are told through their implicit characterisation, brought to life by the performances and visual effects. This degree of thoughtful writing mixed with visual storytelling lends the film a unique flavour, making for a more interesting watch.
Compared to other local media, Tiong Bahru Social Club has a unique aesthetic to it, highly reminiscent of the works of director Wes Anderson. To utilise this style is an enthralling exploration of stylistic Singapore cinema, and ultimately works well under Tan’s direction. Many of the scenes are carefully crafted and meticulously composed to push this aesthetic to its fullest potential. The art design of Tiong Bahru Social Club really shines through to carry the look of an alternate Singapore, selling this eerily pristine look that suits the slightly dystopian sci-fi setting of the film. Tan’s use of light and colour is also superb, unique in how it paints such a vivid neon picture that plays well with the story. One example is how the lighting and colour become softer and less vibrant when not portraying the illusive social club.
Through it all, Tiong Bahru Social Club is a highly entertaining film about happiness told through a more intensely satirical Singaporean lens. Tan’s unconventional style of Singaporean cinema and writing make for a refreshing take on local films. Beyond that, it shows much prospect for our local media, as we move into an age of more imaginative stories and away from age-old tropes (like your typical “broken family” dramas) that have been reprised time and time again. For a taste of something new and fresh in the local scene, Tiong Bahru Social Club is a must-watch.
This article is produced as part of the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the Writer:
Goh Kai En is a student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic studying Film, Sound and Video. An avid fan of local and animated films (especially the works of Studio Ghibli), he loves all forms of creative writing and aspires to be a screenwriter someday.