Many of us can relate to, have related to, or will relate to Ah Bee, hero of the near-future, tech-fantasy film, Tiong Bahru Social Club. He lives with his mom in a high rise apartment building in Singapore. And as he approaches his 30th birthday, he lives a comfortable but pretty unglamorous life—an office job during the day, a seat on the couch in front of the TV and next to mom each night. With this big round number birthday gifting his family a new level of anxiety, they decide it’s time for a change.
Ah Bee (played by Thomas Pang) suddenly finds himself in a new role as the latest Happiness Agent at the Tiong Bahru Social Club (TBSC), a community living experiment where decisions are driven by an algorithm measuring happiness. TBSC is a developer whose facilities ostensibly serve elderly Singapore residents like Ah Bee’s mother, but each resident gets paired with a younger Happiness Agent who becomes responsible for their happiness. Happiness Agents get new roles or perks at TBSC based on both their resident’s and the overall community’s Happiness Index. And TBSC tries to optimize each agent by constantly monitoring their feelings (agents wear Happiness Rings allowing the company to track how actions impact an agent’s happiness) and offering continual training (everything from improving your laugh to mastering three different hug techniques).
At first, Ah Bee seems to be enjoying his new existence just fine despite being paired with Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han), an older woman who adores cats and clearly prefers one of her fingers over all others. But “fine”—happiness scores hovering in between 40-60—doesn’t keep management at TBSC off your back. New plans for Ah Bee are clearly coming.
Better than an HOA?
Tiong Bahru Social Club may sound like the premise for some dark, near-future, dystopian techno thriller. And it is, sort of. This is a whimsical black comedy. It’s as if a Black Mirror premise (maybe a twist on that early episode with Daniel Kaluuya) was mixed with Wes Anderson sensibilities right down to a Futura-esque credits font (so maybe Grand Budapest Hotel, just with algorithms instead of Nazis). Unlike the elaborate casts and over-the-top storylines of Anderson’s work, the plot here can be a little thin and all of the film’s characters beyond Ah Bee and Ms. Wee seem a bit under explored. In particular, TBSC manager Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohamed) has a nefarious undercurrent to everything she does, but it’s left untouched. And Happiness Agent Geok (Jo Tan) may have the highest Happiness Index score, but she seems unspoken-ly dissatisfied. She eventually gets paired with Ah Bee as TBSC management tries to improve both agents, but Geok’s desires and thoughts never really become a central focus of any scene.
Still, the production design and visual decisions will elicit smirks even if stopping to think about the concept of a TBSC-like community is consistently depressing. Rooms at TBSC look like the chicest historical hotel renovated for the near-future, with rounded mid-century furniture and loads of pinks, purples, and turquoises. Happiness Agents’ uniforms could double as costuming for the Polyphonic Spree, while management must’ve hung out with Stanley Tucci in The Hunger Games. And there are many, many absurdist individual frames or sequences to be enjoyed: panning across Ms. Wee’s hand-painted cat portraits all in a row as she tells Ah Bee how they died; zooming out on a group of Happiness Agents as they essentially do a synchronized swimming routine in children’s arm floaties; a mass of old residents chanting for Ah Bee in the streets. As Ah Bee, Pang approaches it all with a level of stylized deadpan Bill Murray could admire.
As fun as Tiong Bahru Social Club is to look at, the film may be even more delightful to ponder. You could call it dystopian satire, but really TBSC-style entities already exist on a sliding scale from amusing (your Apple Watch may remind you to breath, walk, and remember it’s your mother’s birthday) to downright horrifying (China’s social credit score concept). The broader concept of relying on tech to diagnose dissatisfaction or failure and maximize happiness or completion is so common it’s now mundane; it’s an approach already lurking in many apps, wearables, subscription services, and social platforms of today. At least, in real life, we’ve largely recognized the imperfections with this.
In fairness, the tech seemingly does well for Ah Bee. He lands in a beautiful apartment, alongside a perfectly matched partner, with a job that gives him purpose—all selected for him by an optimizing algorithm. “You’re a winner,” his room AI assistant proudly declares. But Ah Bee’s thoughts tell viewers otherwise: “Modern society presents us with too many options, but they are all an illusion. The only decision I make in life is to make no decisions.” By signing a comically hard-to-read ToS (terms of service) upon entry, he’s willingly given himself over to the machines in the most explicit way possible. At TBSC, he and Geok don’t even have to think about intimacy, as the AI sets the atmosphere and provides its humans charts(!) for any actions it can’t take itself. Ah Bee later unironically quotes philosopher Lao Tzu, “It’s the emptiness inside that makes a vessel useful.” Leveraging invasive modern tech to the fullest means abandoning free will to a degree.
The film’s other big theme does center on what all this fancy tech sets out to maximize—happiness. Ah Bee is perhaps the most silent (read: dialogue-light) character this side of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Things happen to him, but rarely does he initiate. So when he does speak, especially in the film’s final third, it really implies this is what’s been consuming his mind the whole time. After an algorithmic-affair with Geok, she turns to him in their perfect apartment to ask a simple question, Are you happy? After living on such a tailored, holistic track for this long, Ah Bee seems caught off guard. “How do you know?” he responds.
Ah Bee’s saga shows that happiness will always take a lot of forms even in a world where one particular vision of it—that idealistic Instagram sheen applied to travel or parenting or creative work or cooking or linear career growth or whatever—gets propagated again and again by algorithms merely looking to maximize engagement. The TBSC’s model rewards smiles, group pictures, and sex, but it doesn’t see value in adoration for a quiet evening sit under the stars or a conversation exploring anything that isn’t obviously happy. Ah Bee’s ultimate choice indicates one size fits all happiness, even a flavor justified by the best data available, will likely never work. TBSC’s next moves, though, suggest companies will never stop trying—especially if there’s more marketshare to be had.
Tiong Bahru Social Club is currently available via VOD as part of the 2021 hybrid edition of the great genre event, Fantasia Fest. The film continues to play the festival circuit otherwise, and the most up to date availability can be found on the film’s Facebook page.