Tiong Bahru Social Club review: Won’t you be my algorithmic neighbor?

The trailer for Tiong Bahru Social Club

Many of us can relate to, have related to, or will relate to Ah Bee, the young hero of the near-future, tech-fantasy film Tiong Bahru Social Club. He lives with his mom in a Singapore high-rise, and his existence is comfortable but unremarkable—an office job during the day and a spot on the couch, watching TV next to his mom, each night. With this 30th birthday fast approaching, his family grows anxious and decides the time for change has arrived.

Ah Bee (played by Thomas Pang) suddenly finds himself as the latest Happiness Agent at the Tiong Bahru Social Club (TBSC), a community-living experiment where decisions are driven by an algorithm that measures happiness. TBSC is a developer whose facilities serve elderly Singapore residents like Ah Bee’s mother, but each resident gets paired with a younger Happiness Agent who is responsible for the elder’s 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 enjoy his new job 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 near-future, dystopian techno-thriller. And it is—sort of. This is a whimsical black comedy, 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 fascists. Unlike the elaborate casts and over-the-top storylines of Anderson’s work, the plot here can be thin, and all of the film’s characters beyond Ah Bee and Ms. Wee are a bit underexplored. 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, despite being silently dissatisfied. She eventually gets paired with Ah Bee as TBSC management tries to improve both agents, but Geok’s desires and thoughts are never the focus of any scene.

Still, the production design and visual decisions will elicit smirks even if the thought a TBSC-like community is consistently depressing. Rooms at TBSC look like the chicest historical hotel renovated for the near-future, with rounded midcentury furniture awash in 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 touches to be enjoyed: panning across Ms. Wee’s hand-painted cat portraits all in a row as she tells Ah Bee how the animals died; zooming out on a group of Happiness Agents that is essentially doing 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 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 TBSC-style entities already exist on a sliding scale from amusing (your Apple Watch reminds you to breath, walk, and remember 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 problems with this.

“You’re a winner”

In fairness, TBSC’s 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’s 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 centers 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, we know that 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 is 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 a quiet evening under the stars or a conversation exploring anything that isn’t obviously happy. Ah Bee’s ultimate choice illustrates that one-size-fits-all happiness, even a flavor justified by the best data available, will never work. TBSC’s next moves, though, suggest companies will never stop trying—especially if there’s more market share 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, and the most up-to-date availability can be found on its Facebook page.

Listing image by Fantasia Fest

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