NYAFF 2021: Our Review of ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’

NYAFF 2021: Our Review of ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’

On Tiong Bahru Social Club, director Tan Bee Thiam blocks many scenes with symmetry, which sparked a thought that is profound to me, that symmetry, as well as other attempts at aesthetic, as an inherent social critique. This visual form of critique, theoretically, makes sense with this subject. The characters here are ‘happiness agents,’ receiving points depending on how well they make their elder clients (including Jalyn Han) happy. All of this takes place in the titular neighborhood in Singapore, where one of those agents, Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) congratulates the top agent. He performs happiness, which the club arbitrarily measures.

Other scenes include the titular club advertising itself, which includes Ah Bee. Again, he performs happiness, although his expressions can sometimes be indecipherable. Tiong Bahru Social Club contrasts those with the scenes showing Ah Bee’d old neighborhood, where his mother still lives, that is equally artificial yet run down. Those contrasts are few and far between though. There isn’t enough of that old neighborhood to ground the film. So most of it takes place in a newer neighborhood with its cycle of hype sessions and self advertisements. It’s a strange choice to depict that cycle instead of a plot.

That bad choice follows a worse one, namely, that they never examine something deeper. There’s nothing underneath Ah Bee or his mother (Guat Kian Goh) or the others. The rest of Tiong Bahru Social Club are just scenes of awkward encounters among characters who at least should express something complex when they are together. If mainstream blockbusters can express that, this film could have too. This aims for a social satire that doesn’t land simply because nothing happens, not even a characters seeming to change their thoughts. Films with ‘aesthetic’ often find themselves in festivals like this without merit.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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