“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”.
Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)