The happiest neighbourhood in the world might just be right at our doorstep … or is it? Filmmaker Tan Bee Thiam offers a satirical take on the Singaporean construct of happiness in his solo directorial debut

Happiness can mean different things to different people. For Tan Bee Thiam, it is doing what you love: “Work fulfilment is happiness to me, as well as being around my loved ones.”

But what if happiness becomes a competition? The filmmaker questions the construct of happiness in Singapore—and the country’s obsession with quantifiable results, whether it is the GDP or the happiness index—in his first full-length feature, Tiong Bahru Social Club, which is the opening film of the 31st Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), which takes place from November 26 to December 6 in a hybrid format. Written by Tan and Antti Toivonen, the satirical comedy tells the story of Ah Bee, who takes on the job of a happiness agent in a data-driven programme as per the film’s title to build the happiest neighbourhood in the world, within the idyllic Tiong Bahru district.

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Interestingly, Toivonen is from Finland, which was declared the happiest country in the world for the third year running in the 2020 edition of the annual United Nations World Happiness Report. Singapore takes the 31st spot. “While we are not very happy, Singapore is the most competitive country in the world. The film is a hybrid of both the Finnish and Singaporean sensibilities, but the idea of happiness as a competition is, of course, absurd because then it becomes ironic,” enthuses Tan.

So even though Ah Bee diligently carries out his tasks at the Tiong Bahru Social Club, from taking care of an elderly resident and her cat to leading group happiness exercises, there is a risk of him losing his job should the “gross community happiness index”, which addresses all aspect of happiness through an artificial intelligence algorithm, fall below par—and thus revealing the fractures of enforced happiness.

AN ODE TO HOME

“The film reflects my feelings towards Singapore. It is a film about home and about being together—and I think people can definitely relate to that and find meaning, especially at the end of such a crazy year, which is so Black Mirror,” Tan explains, in reference to the popular Netflix sci-fi anthology series of a dystopian future. He lets on that even though he has been involved in the various aspects of filmmaking for about 10 years now, “I really wanted to make a film for my mother, something that she can watch and understand”.

Both Tan and Toivonen also took inspiration from the distinct art deco identity of the Tiong Bahru district and the iconic brutalist architecture of the Pearl Bank Apartments building. While the Singapore-based creative agency head Toivonen currently resides in Tiong Bahru (“He knows more about the neighbourhood that I do,” Tan quips.), Tan spent many of his weekends growing up at his grandmother’s Kim Tian Road residence, just off Tiong Bahru. On his journey there from his family home in Clementi, he would often pass by the Pearl Bank Apartments.

“The design and aesthetic of the future is very much an essential aspect that we focused our research on while making the film, because it was in this very aesthetic that inspired us to look at what the past generation thought about the future. Tiong Bahru Social Club is not a film about nostalgia, it is actually about the futuristic visions that people, especially those in the 1970s, already had while thinking about what people in 2020 would do. This is a kind of retrofuturism,” Tan elucidates.

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When we speak to Tan via a Zoom interview in late October, it was only days after the film’s world premiere at the 25th Busan International Film Festival—and the only Singapore selection screened as part of the festival’s Window on Asian Cinema programme. However, due to the pandemic, the cast and creative team were unable to travel to the port city in South Korea where the festival was held.

“I was sad, of course, and a lot of the cast and creative team felt the same because we really wanted to hear from our first public audience what they really thought about the film,” says Tan. “It was such a pity because at film festivals you meet not only new audiences for the work you create, but also new collaborators for the works that you are going to make.”

Fun fact: Tan and Toivonen first met at an after-party of the SGIFF Silver Screen Awards. Within weeks of that first meeting, they already had a script, with which they successfully applied for a grant from the Singapore Film Commission. Five years in the making, Tiong Bahru Social Club is the result of that serendipitous meeting.

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It is a film about home and about being together. I think people can definitely relate to that
Tan Bee Thiam

The film is currently making its rounds on the festival circuit. It was screened at the 57th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival earlier this month; and it has been nominated for the SGIFF Silver Screen Awards’ Asian Feature Film competition, with the winning film to be announced on December 6. Tiong Bahru Social Club will make its theatrical release—one of the few local films this year—from December 10.

It has already been described as a “Wes Anderson meets Black Mirror” picture, the former in reference to the American auteur known for cult favourites such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and the much-anticipated The French Dispatch, set to release next year. Judging by its motley crew of kooky characters, saturation of pastel hues and symmetrical compositions, you can say that Tiong Bahru Social Club is not off the mark.

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LOCAL FILM CHAMPION

Despite his years of experience in the Singapore independent film industry, as director, producer, writer and editor, Tan considers himself an amateur filmmaker: “I hope that I will always hold on to the spirit of an amateur, so that I can keep experimenting with different forms of cinema.”

A founding member of the independent film collective 13 Little Pictures, Tan co-directed Fundamentally Happy (2015) with Lei Yuan Bin, and produced Glen Goei and Gavin Yap’s Revenge of the Pontianak (2019) and Daniel Hui’s Demons (2019), among many other local films that have garnered critical acclaim.

But perhaps he is best-known as the founder and former executive director of the Asian Film Archive, which is dedicated to the preservation of old films and making them accessible to the public. Such is his long-standing passion for film. Tan also has a good view of the future of filmmaking as a lecturer in film production at the Singapore Polytechnic Media, Arts & Design School.

“I think as the Singapore film industry matures, you will find more stories that were previously not covered before, or perhaps explored from a new angle. And maybe with a new aesthetic or a new narrative. So what we see instead is a more diverse and richer portfolio of work that hopefully represents Singaporeans in Singapore.”

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