New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 中峇鲁俱乐部

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Tiong Bahru Social Club, given the basis premise. But with that premise, I suppose the last thing I expected was for it to be such a warm, kindhearted film. It surprised me, in a very pleasant way.

But let’s talk about that premise: Ah Bee, an intensely passive young momma’s boy (endearing portrayed by Thomas Pang), gets a job working at a planned community that claims to have developed an algorithmically perfect approach to maximizing happiness in all it’s residents.

Just hearing that logline, it’s hard not to imagine the lacerating satire it could be, a blistering condemnation of tech and it’s utterly unfeeling, inhuman method of simulating that most elusive and desired of human emotions. And that the laughs would come from mockery of the deluded idiots buying into the system hook, line, and sinker.

So it’s all the more impressive just how successful is at avoiding the potential mean spirited pitfalls that could have left a sour taste and come down unequivocally on the side of sincerity and open heartedness.

(Not that the movie is utterly devoid of satirical content; just that the way it approaches it is deftly handled)

Ah Bee is assigned to be the caretaker of Ms. Wee (Jailyn Han), an aloof old lady who seems a very ill-fit for what the Tiong Bahru Social Club is offering, preferring the company of her equally aloof cat named Cat (Mochi, who unlike some turtles I could mention, actually gets opening credits billing) to the well-meaning but perhaps ill-equipped Ah Bee.

And if, at this point, you’re expecting the story to be one of Ah Bee slowly but surely warming Ms. Wee’s heart… well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Instead, what we’re more focused on is Ah Bee himself, and it’s here that credit must be given to Thomas Pang and his extraordinarily well-modulated, mostly silent performance. He probably spends more time making cat noises than speaking actual dialogue, so much of the emotional impact and comedy of his role must be conveyed through his eyes and physicality, and Pang excels at working within those limitations. He smiles constantly, and to be sure, it’s a pretty appealing smile, but he allows just enough doubt to accumulate behind the eyes for us to register just how unsure about everything he truly is.

Of course, where there are algorithms there are rankings, and despite his best efforts, Ah Bee finds himself at the bottom of the list in terms of personal happiness and his ability to bring happiness to others. At the top is the highly personable water aerobics instructor Geok (Jo Tan), with whom Ah Bee is immediately smitten. Because of course he is.

And if you’re expecting a typical romance here… well, that part gets a little weird, too.

Thanks to the inspired, deftly modulated direction of first timer Tan Bee Thiam, Tiong Bahru Social Club drifts along on this pleasant yet meaningful haze, as all its characters do their best to bring happiness into the lives of others, and find their own as well. It’s a very unique vibe the movie both goes for and achieves, and a huge part of that is the ingenious production design by James Page; in terms of sheer world building, the sleek, minimalist, pastel look of the Social Club environs go a long way towards acclimating the viewer to the films tone.

And a big part of that tone is the surprising even-handedness with which it treats the data driven aspect. While the constant monitoring of the employees moods and the clandestine strategy sessions between club manager Hasalinna (Noorlinah Mohamed, wryly amusing) and her superior (A snazzily dressed Anita Kapoor, billed only as” Madam”) give off a certain sinister subtext, the overall sincerity of the groups efforts at happiness building are never questioned; merely the execution.

Hell, even the intrusive AI tasked with raising Ah Bee’s stats is allowed a touching moment or two. Who would have guessed?

The charms and pleasures of Tiong Bahru Social Club might seem simple on the surface, but reveal a profundity and an appreciation for the difficulties of cultivating happiness. It left me feeling a little bit lighter and a little bit more appreciative of human connection than I was going in, and that’s not nothing.


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