A special screening of the acclaimed Singaporean film “Tiong Bahru Social Club” took place in the Turkish capital on Saturday as part of the 33rd Ankara International Film Festival with the film’s director Tan Bee Thiam in person.
Organized by the Singapore Embassy in Ankara, a reception was held at the Büyülü Fener Kızılay cinema, followed by the screening of the film.
“Tiong Bahru Social Club” is an important Singaporean satirical dark art comedy film, subtly tackling several real-life issues and phenomena as well as the pursuit of happiness.
On her 30th birthday, Ah Bee, who still lives with her mother, signs up to work as a happiness agent at the Tiong Bahru Social Club – a pilot project using data to build the world’s happiest neighborhood in an aging Singaporean neighborhood. Upon arriving in Tiong Bahru, a neighborhood with unique art deco white buildings, Ah Bee enters the community and is assigned to serve Mrs. Wee, a cat-crazed. Ah Bee soon moves into one of the community houses only to realize that an artificial intelligence algorithm, Bravo60, is placed in the room. Bravo60 often talks with Ah Bee as a friend and regularly measures her happiness score. The club and its members aim to make former residents happier through several social activities including swimming sessions, cuddling sessions and serving them in their daily tasks and problems. After initially struggling to fit in with society and the loss of Mrs. Wee, Ah Bee inherits Mrs. Wee’s cat, is matched with a girlfriend Geok, and is promoted to head of the community complaint center. . Things look brighter for Ah Bee, but something is wrong with him.
The futuristic dystopia with an increased role of technology in human life along with the goal of being happy and making others happier is cleverly displayed in the film. With sessions of laughter, constant forced smiles on the faces of the Agents of Happiness and hugging sessions, the film makes reference to the fact that although Singapore ranks high in several areas such as academic achievement, development and gross domestic product (GDP), Singaporeans are the least emotional and the most unhappy workforce in the world
“The film is a reflection of the absurdities of modern Singaporean society. The ambition to be the happiest neighborhood in the world is a perfect irony. Can happiness be quantified and do we have to be happier than others to be truly happy? said the director.
“I think we live in the age of emojis these days where we have to give an emoji to whatever is asked of us to convey how we feel.”
Tan said he is a full-time teacher and a part-time filmmaker and one of the talks he gives is on Education and Career Counseling, which deals with teaching students how to be successful in their careers.
“In Singapore, all students are required to recite the Singapore National Pledge on school days which asks Singaporeans to commit themselves to achieving happiness, prosperity and progress for the nation. But we don’t teach them how to be happy, only how to succeed when you look at the successes of singapore we are leading in a lot of areas but one of the things that we are doing very poorly is you find in the gallup polls that we have the workers the most unhappy. In Singapore, we even have a nationwide campaign to encourage people to smile more. It’s a film to reflect on some of Singapore’s failures but to celebrate those failures as who we are.”
“We are a very results-oriented country. There is what you hope to be and you design that kind of outcome. But happiness is different, you cannot conceive it. Happiness is a journey you have to process and you need space and time to let things sink in and for you to get back up to walk, fight and survive. Sometimes we don’t give our students time to do this. To keep going, we have to celebrate failures, not just successes, which is why the character is called Ah Bee – it’s not about the A’s in life, it’s about the B’s and C’s,” Tan told the Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview, adding that Ah Bee leaves her mother’s house and begins her own journey shows the courage to pursue happiness.
Speaking about the link between technology, an increasingly prevalent fact of modern life, and happiness, Tan said he felt a growing fear of technology and AI and its impacts on people. jobs in the essays of his students.
“It’s not the technology they’re afraid of, it’s the people using the technology, the AI that they’re afraid of. This has created a crisis among young people who feel they are not good enough. A constant danger of losing one’s job creates anxiety and stress in people. I don’t think technology should work that way. I’m always amazed at what technology can do. In the movie, I removed all the technology and wanted them to just focus on the ring.
“I’m actually a computer engineer by training. That’s why my journey to becoming a filmmaker is quite unorthodox, I would say. I like technology because even in cinema, I feel like every leap in cinema is due to technology. But in this film, what I want to explore and create is a film where the past imagines the future.
Indeed, no cars, phones, laptops, or anything that would indicate what time period the film was set in, are seen throughout the film.
“I wanted to make it a timeless film.”
Asked about the dark, dark characters seen in some scenes in the film, Tan said they represent the people who run the social club as well as Bravo60, who cannot be seen.
“It’s designed so you can hear it because it’s all around us. You don’t know where he is, you don’t know where he is following you. There are two things in the movie – the cat and Bravo60, who is a robot trying to be a human. He talks to Ah Bee and tries to be a friend. These two characters are very important in the film because they teach Ah Bee and us how to be human and what it is really to be human.
Another interesting point made by Tan was that the story of the cat in the film was based on a real incident of a cat called Bob who lived in the Tiong Bahru district of Singapore. Ten years ago, after a car accident, the locals got together and in one day collected SG$20,000 for Bob’s hospital bills, after which the cat recovered and died. started walking the streets of Tiong Bahru again.
“When I heard about this story, I thought if we could take care of everyone like the people of Tiong Bahru did for Bob, we would be in such a happy place.”
Released in 2020, the film was released during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the cinema industry. Tan said that after thinking about whether to release the film during or after the pandemic, it was decided to release it in 2020 and the Tiong Bahru Social Club was hugely successful. “We felt it was a film that would encourage people, bring them a dose of happiness, and it did relatively well.”
The film received several awards, including Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Top 10 Films of 2021 for Sight and Sound Magazine, the Roger & Julie Corman Award for Intrepid Filmmaking at the 19th Fargo Fantastic Film Festival at ValleyCo, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature narrative feature at the 11th Guam International Film Festival Best Film (Newcomers Section) as well as the 19th Asian Film Festival (Rome) Special Jury Award (for world building) at the 37th Los Angeles Asian Film Festival.
The Ankara Film Festival provides a platform for foreign films to reach Turkish audiences, Singapore’s Ambassador to Ankara, Jonathan Tow, told Daily Sabah.
Saying that sometimes Singaporean films get overlooked because they’re not very well known in Turkey, Tow said, “We particularly wanted to bring in a director who could interact and by interacting people would have a better understanding of why we make movies the way we make them. Hopefully there will be a reflection of our society. That’s the main reason we wanted to use the film festival to expand our reach and befriend the cinematographic and cultural community here.
When asked why the embassy chose the Tiong Bahru Social Club, the ambassador explained that “one of the main reasons is that we wanted to have a more current film. It is timely. It’s a little offbeat, it makes you think a little more, and it’s a film that represents the languages of Singapore. Singapore is a society, it is a country which is multilingual.
Tow pointed out that all Singaporean languages, including even Chinese dialects as well as English, were used in the film.
“The main thing is to feel the diversity of Singapore.”
First Secretary for Political Affairs Ashraf Yoonus, who organized the special screening for the Singapore Embassy, said getting Tan to Türkiye in time for the event proved to be a Herculean task. As Tan is a full-time lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic, the embassy had to work around his busy schedule to fly him to Ankara. And even then it turned out to be a tough business and he wasn’t even sure Tan would make it in time as he faced a flight delay resulting in a missed connection and ended up losing his luggage in the process.
However, the Embassy’s efforts were worth it given the incredible reception from Turkish moviegoers who enjoyed the Tiong Bahru Social Club, many of whom were watching a Singapore film for the first time. Yoonus said, “The special screening will be remembered as a milestone in Turkey’s commitment to Singapore’s film culture. I would also like to express my gratitude to the Ankara International Film Festival and the Singapore Film Commission for their support.”