Singaporean comedy Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部) played both the New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia International Film Festival, which ran more or less concurrently.
30-year old Ah Bee is the protagonist of this forward-thinking, technologically concerned dark comedy. His mother urges him to take hold of an exciting opportunity that comes his way, an offer to join the staff/membership of the “Tiong Bahru Social Club”, a fun and futuristic community that caters to people’s happiness. Two groups are part of the club’s makeup: elderly retirees, and career-driven younger staff persons who are assigned to help them in the interest of mutually assured happiness.
While there are human managers that facilitate the club’s operations (from a ghoulishly lit command center), it’s actually driven by an AI construct which analyzes its members’ “happiness index” through their behavioral monitoring and analytics, including what amounts to a high-tech mood ring. Additionally, it indexes their skillsets and other personal traits, anticipating their desires and attitudes.
The automation not only performs the analytics which drive its algorithm, but acts on it as well, controlling aspects of its users’ lives by creating job assignments and even pairing compatible lovers together — again, all in the interest of achieving greater happiness index.
Obviously this central conceit is inherently an impossible and nightmarish scenario, and a dark cloud hangs over the club’s peppy veneer. The pressure to perform by being perpetually “happy” is antithetical to healthy and natural human emotion. Similarly, the idea of surrendering one’s autonomy to an artificial intelligence is a terrifying one.
Of course these ideas, while presented as futuristic, are fair critiques of a state where our society has, in some ways, already arrived. Social media pressures people to put on airs or present perfect versions of themselves. AI already drives our lives through our dependence on cell phones and myriad forms of automated technology. Even our sexuality is channeled through screens.
Stylistically, the film (which is mostly English in its dialogue) definitely seems to be pulling from Wes Anderson’s playbook with some of his trademarks like yellow block letters, symmetrical cinematography, deadpan humor, colorful sets, and quirky music throughout.
The film manages to have a light tone while covering rather dark material, a playful yet deeply concerned fable about encroaching technology. It’s weird, witty, and worth seeking out.