Tiong Bahru Social Club Review: Won’t You Be My Algorithmic Neighbor?
Many of us can relate to, relate to, or will relate to, Ah Bee, the hero of the upcoming tech fantasy film, Tiong Bahru Social Club. He lives with his mother in a high-rise building in Singapore. And as his 30th birthday approaches, he leads a comfortable but somewhat unglamorous life: a desk job during the day, a seat on the couch in front of the TV, and next to mom every night. With the large round number birthday giving her family a new level of anxiety, they decide it’s time for a change.
Ah Bee (played by Thomas Pang) suddenly finds herself in a new role as the Last Happiness Agent at the Tiong Bahru Social Club (TBSC), a community living experience where decisions are dictated by an algorithm that measures happiness. TBSC is a developer whose facilities ostensibly serve the elderly residents of Singapore like Ah Bee’s mother, but each resident is paired with a younger Happiness Agent who becomes responsible for their joy. Happiness Agents gain new roles or benefits at TBSC based on the Happiness Index of their residents and the community as a whole. And TBSC tries to optimize each agent by constantly monitoring their feelings (agents wear happiness rings allowing the company to track the impact of actions on an agent’s happiness) and by providing ongoing training (everything, from improving your laughter to mastering three different hugging techniques).
At first, Ah Bee seems to be enjoying her new existence well despite her pairing up with Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han), an older woman who adores cats and clearly prefers one of her fingers over all the others. But “good” – happiness scores between 40 and 60 – doesn’t stop you from managing the direction of TBSC. New plans for Ah Bee are clearly coming.
Better than a HOA?
Tiong Bahru Social Club may sound like the premise of a dark, near-future, dystopian techno thriller. And it’s, kind of. It’s a whimsical dark comedy. It is as if a Black mirror premise (maybe a twist on that first episode with Daniel Kaluuya) was mixed with Wes Anderson’s sensibilities until a Futura-esque credit font (so maybe Grand Budapest Hotel, just with algorithms instead of Nazis). Unlike the elaborate cast and exaggerated plot lines of Anderson’s work, the plot here can be a bit thin, and all of the characters in the film beyond Ah Bee and Ms. Wee seem a bit under-explored. In particular, TBSC Director Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohamed) has a negative undercurrent in everything she does, but it is not affected. And Happiness Agent Geok (Jo Tan) may have the highest Happiness Index score, but she tacitly appears dissatisfied. She ends up being associated with Ah Bee as the management of TBSC tries to improve the two Agents, but Geok’s desires and thoughts never really become the focal point of a scene.
Still, the production design and visual decisions will elicit smirks even though stopping to think about the concept of a TBSC-like community is always depressing. Rooms at TBSC look like the fanciest historic hotel renovated for the near future, with rounded mid-century furniture and tons of pinks, purples, and turquoises. Agents of Happiness uniforms could double as costumes for the polyphonic party, while management had to hang out with Stanley Tucci in The hunger Games. And there’s lots and lots of absurd individual footage or footage to enjoy: panning over Ms. Wee’s hand-painted portraits of cats, all lined up as she tells Ah Bee how they died; zoom in on a group of Happiness Agents as they essentially perform a synchronized swimming routine in children’s arm floats; a mass of old residents chanting for Ah Bee in the streets. As Ah Bee, Pang approaches it all with a level of stylized tongue-in-cheek that Bill Murray might admire.
As fun as Tiong Bahru Social Club is to watch, the film may be even more enjoyable to meditate on. You might call it dystopian satire, but in reality TBSC-style entities already exist on a sliding scale, funny (your Apple Watch can remind you to breathe, walk, and remember it’s birthday. of your mother) to downright horrible (the concept of China’s social credit score). The broader concept of relying on technology to diagnose dissatisfaction or failure and maximize happiness or completion is so common that it is now commonplace; it’s an approach that’s already lurking in many apps, wearable devices, subscription services, and social platforms today. At least in real life we’ve largely recognized the imperfections with it.
In all fairness, the technology seems to be working well for Ah Bee. He lands in a beautiful apartment, alongside a perfectly matched partner, with a job that gives him a purpose – all selected for him by an optimization algorithm. “You are a winner,” his room AI assistant proudly declares. But Ah Bee’s thoughts tell viewers the opposite: “Modern society gives us 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 difficult to read ToS (terms of service) on entry, he voluntarily indulged himself in the machines in the most explicit way possible. At TBSC, he and Geok didn’t even Think about privacy, because AI sets the atmosphere and provides its humans with maps (!) Modern technology invasive to the max means giving up free will to some extent.
The other big theme of the film centers on what all of this fancy technology aims to maximize: happiness. Ah Bee is perhaps the quietest (read: dialogue-light) character on this side of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Things happen To him, but he rarely initiates. So when he speaks, especially in the last third of the movie, it really implies that this is what has been on his mind all the time. After an algorithmic adventure with Geok, she turns to him in their perfect apartment to ask him a simple question, Are you happy? After living on such a holistic bespoke track for so long, Ah Bee seems caught off guard. “How do you know?” he answers.
The Ah Bee saga shows that happiness will always take many forms, even in a world where one particular view of it – that idealistic glow of Instagram applied to travel, parenthood or creative work or cooking. or to linear career growth or whatever – spreads over and over again. by algorithms that simply seek to maximize engagement. The TBSC model rewards smiles, group photos, and sex, but he doesn’t see the value of worship for a quiet night out under the stars or a conversation exploring anything that isn’t clearly happy. Ah Bee’s ultimate pick indicates one size fits all for all happiness, even a flavor warranted by the best data available, will probably never work. TBSC’s upcoming moves, however, suggest that companies will never stop trying, especially if there is more market share to be had.
Tiong Bahru Social Club is currently available on VOD as part of the 2021 hybrid edition of the big genre event, Fantasia Fest. The film continues to play the festival circuit in a different way, and the most up-to-date availability can be found on the film’s Facebook page.