FANTASIA REVIEW: Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)

TBSC_poster_layout_(film festivals)Algorithms dictate what social media does and does not show you, and what consumer goods are advertised at you. With enough data behind them they can predict what sort of car you want to drive, what you will study at university, and even which political party you will vote for. All this in mind, why not simply let algorithms dictate your entire life?

Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club is an absolute gem. It manages the considerable feat of being warmly funny and increasingly paranoid at the same time. Add in levels of light speculative fiction and social commentary, and it presents itself as a smart, colourful, and hugely entertaining success.

Seeking to move out of his mother’s Pearl Bank apartment, 30-year-old Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) takes up a residential position at the Tiong Bahru Social Club: a pilot program taking a data-driven approach to building happier communities across Singapore. After being matched with a cat-loving aged client (Jalyn Han) and with a new girlfriend (Jo Tan), Ah Bee’s new life should be a paradise – so why is he so doubtful?

Life in the Tiong Bahru Social Club is like life within a cult. Everyone seems a little too happy. Mantras and slogans abound. The decor and furnishings are a little too bright and colourful. A team of young employees tend to the every need of the community’s elderly residents – but no one seems to be tending to the employees in return. The management is worryingly opaque and insincere. If one was to transplant the Village – the setting of surreal TV classic The Prisoner – from 1960s Wales to 2020s Singapore, it would look and sound an awful lot like the Tiong Bahru Social Club.

It is worth noting for non-Singaporean readers that Tiong Bahru is a real place. It is a combination of historically preserved 1930s art deco apartments and hipster-friendly cafes and bakeries, with an ageing population and a genuine sense of community. It’s my preferred place to stay when I visit Singapore, and it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate setting for Tan Bee Thiam’s film to take place. I am by no means as expert on Singaporean culture, but it seems clear there is a lot of satirical content embedded into the film for local audiences that may pass the rest of us by.

Superb production design gives everything in the social club a fake veneer of joy. A particularly clever element is Bravo60, a talking A.I. that controls Ah Bee’s apartment and with whom Ah Bee forms an unexpected sort of friendship. For the most part Bravo60 is a disembodied voice, but the first time they appear as a black silhuette inside the apartment’s mirror is an alarming moment.

Thiam has cast the film with primarily theatre actors, and their heightened performances only add to the oddly unnatural cadence of the film as a whole. It instinctively feels fake and untrustworthy, and that feeds powerfully into a growing sense of unease. One spends much of the film waiting for a penny to drop, or for the Wizard of Oz’s curtain to be pulled. That inspires a wonderful balance between the comedy and a pervasive sense of growing paranoia. It is a superb emotional effect.

Tiong Bahru Social Club really deserves as much international exposure as it can get. It is a smart, hugely original, and deeply funny work of art.

Tiong Bahru Social Club has been screening on-demand at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click here for more information.

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