Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部, Tan Bee Thiam, 2020)

“How can you simply approve all these claims, we can’t make everyone who complains happy!” the hero of Tan Bee Thiam’s surreal happiness satire Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部) is admonished by his boss, a claim he will ironically later discover to be truer than he knows. It’s certainly true that the modern world has become somewhat complicated, but do you really need an algorithm to teach you how to be happy or more to the point can you truly feel “happiness” without a computer readout validating your feelings? That’s a question which only belatedly occurs to young Bee (Thomas Pang) when he takes a job at strange new social program aiming to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world but also sinisterly insisting that “everyone’s happiness is our business”, which it quite literally is. 

The Tiong Bahru Social Club is marketed partly as a retirement community set in the famous 1920s art deco colonial district. Promising to “put the unity back in community” they aim to foster an old fashioned village spirit. The reason Bee has decided to work for them, partly at the behest of his widowed mother with whom he still lives, is that he’s just turned 30 and needs to think of the future. The Social Club offers a speedy career track, high pay, and good benefits including food and accommodation which make it a much more promising option than his old job at the laundry even though he likes the sense of order and progress he feels listening to the predictable rhythm of the machines. Asked for a loyalty card at a supermarket checkout he proudly declares that he has “no passion” yet as his mother reminds him even as a little boy he was the type who just wanted everyone to be happy even if he ended up hurt. 

Such a temperament might make him an ideal recruit, as the algorithm seems to believe, but Bee is ill-prepared for the bizarre uncanniness of the cult-like Tiong Bahru society in which he’s guided by an AI assistant and asked to wear a ring which measures his happiness level and positive impact on others. His first assignment is looking after a grumpy old woman who, on the surface at least, isn’t really invested in the Happiness Movement and claims she’s only in it for the freebies. The problem may be, however, that Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han) is already in a sense “happy” in that she no longer cares very much about what other people think and is completely comfortable in herself if perhaps lonely and missing the various cats of her life, eventually enlisting Bee to steal one from the guy running a cat tours stand who later gets fired for not generating enough happiness. The other obvious problem with the Social Club is that, as an old-fashioned, iconic building it hasn’t been very well adapted for those using wheelchairs or experiencing problems with mobility, both factors which might make it more difficult for their elderly residents to feel “happy”. Meanwhile, Bee’s own happiness rating is adversely affected by the nature of the program kept in a constant state of anxiety that he might be for the chop if he doesn’t spread enough joy. 

In a slice of irony, Bee’s mother remains behind alone in the Pearl Bank building, a landmark of ‘70s high rise architecture now in a state of disrepair and the subject of a possible block buy by developers who presumably intend to tear it down (the real building was indeed demolished in March 2020 with a new high rise pending). The older residents mainly want to sell while the younger insist the building should be preserved for its historical value while feeling the loss of their community. As his AI assistant Bravo 60 tells him, Bee is now “successful” in that, having gained a promotion, he’s found his place in the community, is living in a nice apartment with a “perfectly matched partner” (selected for him via the algorithm), and has a job that gives him purpose but Bee doesn’t feel like he “deserves” it. If it’s all already decided, by the stars or by an algorithm then what’s the point? All he sees is emptiness. His life is micromanaged to an infinite degree, even given a diagram explaining how to make love to his new girlfriend in the way that generates the most happiness while his boss (and Bravo 60) look on in judgement from above. 

Yet, it’s emptiness that Bee eventually comes to appreciate as the force which in its own way gives his life meaning. Gradually disillusioned with the Social Club in which “happiness” is a matter of cynical manipulation he opts for something a little less neat in which happiness is no one’s business but his own, the slow and steady march of the Happiness Movement not withstanding. Featuring fantastic production design by A Land Imagined’s James Page filled with retro neon along with the cutesy heightened pastel colour scheme with its mix of calming yellows and the very ‘80s pink and blue, Tan’s quirky exploration of the fallacy of the “happiness index” subtly critiques the contemporary society along with an empty authoritarianism, subversively undercutting a socially conservative culture in the inclusion of two smiling, waving men on their balcony as Bee is reminded of his “perfectly matched partner”. Happiness is not a matter of order or design but perhaps there might be something in that sense of “community” if fostered by genuine fellow feeling and compassion rather than a system of penalty and reward brokered by “social credit”. 


Tiong Bahru Social Club screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Remi M. Sali, 2020)

True love conquers all in Remi M Sali’s warmhearted Singaporean rom-com Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Búshi Wǒ Māma de Hōngbèi). Spinning a Romeo and Juliet romance between an aspiring Malay Muslim cook and the heir to a roast pork hawker stall, Not My Mother’s Baking is as much about cross-cultural connection as it is about two young people finding their own directions and the strength to pursue them free of parental expectation as they figure out what it is that will really make them happy.

Daughter of celebrity chef Siti (Siti Mastura Alwi), Sarah (Sarah Ariffin) has always lived in her mother’s shadow, harbouring a mild sense of resentment towards her for neglecting her family in favour of her career. The little brother of her best friend Tini (Maya Jalil), Imran (Asraf Amin), who has long been carrying a torch for her suggests starting her own online cookery series to establish her brand as distinct from her mother’s setting her up with Edwin (Kaydash Cheung Shing Lai), an aspiring Chinese video producer. The two do not exactly hit it off thanks to some cultural misunderstandings, but begin to grow closer after they each reluctantly agree to work together in order to avoid having to spend more time with their families, Sarah potentially roped in as a temporary/free assistant to her mum and Edwin needed to help out at his parents’ hawker stand selling roast pork. 

Cheerfully narrated by Edwin’s upbeat dad Mr. Tan (Vincent Tee), this is a story which begins with a wedding and so we know right away that it all works out and Sarah and Edwin will get their happy ending, yet there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way of their burgeoning love story not least a lack of understanding that begins with Edwin somewhat insensitively advising Sarah to remove her headscarf to make a better impression in the videos. Ill-advised by Imran, Edwin is wary of telling Sarah about his family’s occupation firstly in case it causes offence and then later uncertain what level of interaction is permitted between them considering he’s been handling pork. Sarah’s cheeky brother Yusri (Benjamin Zainal) jokes that her potential love interest is not “halal”, but then her parents aren’t quite as against the idea as she might have assumed them to be while she finds herself somewhat conflicted, not least in her ambiguous relationship with the superficially “perfect” Imran whose cheesy pick up lines and tendency to try far too hard perhaps convince her that he might in fact be too perfect or at least the wrong kind of perfect for her. 

Meanwhile, she’s also trying to find her way out of her mother’s shadow as a cook, scoring a hit online when she retitles her show “Not my Mother’s Baking” and affectionately mocks Chef Siti’s signature TV star style claiming to be a little more real and authentic in contrast to her mother’s seeming affectation. In a meta twist, Sarah and her mother are played by real life mother and daughter celebrity chefs Sarah Ariffin and Siti Mastura Alwi, though their onscreen relationship is one defined by rivalry and frustrated connection. Chef Siti is understandably hurt by Sarah’s direct attack on her brand, but it does at least enable an overdue heart to heart which brings the two women closer as they work through their complicated relationship while bonding through their shared love of cooking. 

Edwin, meanwhile, has no real desire to take over the pork stand as his parents expect while no one seems to take his video career very seriously. In a slight twist, the Tans have decided Edwin rather than his sister Joyce (Lim Mei Fen) should take over not because she’s a girl but because she went to university and so they think it’s beneath her, stubbornly refusing to see that Joyce actually loves the business and has a few ideas how to bring it into the 21st century making full use of her skills and education. Unlike Sarah’s family, Edwin’s parents are less keen on a cross-cultural romance because they fear losing their son knowing that to marry a Malay muslim woman means not only leaving the pork shop behind but fully converting to her religion. 

Yet as the female religious leader who accepts his conversion points out (Singapore is apparently the first country to allow women to approve a man’s conversion to Islam), there is no issue with Edwin keeping his Chinese name and it’s not as if he has to cut off contact with his family even considering the problematic nature of their occupation as demonstrated in the couple’s beautifully colourful fusion wedding at which a roast pig is served for the Chinese guests alongside halal Malay cuisine, while Edwin is followed into the ceremony by two large pink dancing lions and the nuptials are concluded with a traditional tea ceremony. A very millennial romance, Not My Mother’s Baking allows its young heroes to forge their own paths outside of those their parents might have chosen for them, proving that love really does conquer all while bringing together two very different cultures each united by the desire to see their children happy. 


Not My Mother’s Baking streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)