‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’ director Tan Bee Thiam: “I think Singapore needs to dream bigger as a society”

The trailer of Tiong Bahru Social Club leaves an impression with a single glance. Besides its quaint, picturesque qualities, what immediately stands out is a sense of humour that disarms you – just before the trailer teases a story that is both a meditation on Singaporean society and an oddball take on dystopian sci-fi.

The debut film by Tan Bee Thiam situates a young everyman named Ah Bee (played by Thomas Pang) who decides to join the titular club. He progressively eases into its confines within the gentrified neighbourhood, discovering what’s behind the data-driven programme engineered to “create the world’s happiest residents”.

Instead of unfurling a sinister plot, like in other modern-day dystopian fiction such as Black Mirror and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Tan explores humanist themes at his own languid pace: the unsettling process of quantifying happiness, the preservation of Singapore’s architectural past, and the generational inheritance of hopes and dreams.

A recurring setting in the film is the brutalist Pearl Bank Apartments, the childhood home of Ah Bee which, in real life Singapore, has been torn down to make way for a glistening modern high-rise.

The dominant settings of Pearl Bank and Tiong Bahru – both cherished Singaporean landmarks – help elevate the retrofuturistic elements of Tiong Bahru Social Club’s look. Production design took an intense three months, notwithstanding the years of writing the script and six to 12 months spent casting its characters.

Led by Thomas Pang, the film is rounded up by a cast that includes Munah Bagharib, Jo Tan, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jalyn Han, Guat Kian Poh among others. Following a local premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in November, Tiong Bahru Social Club is set for a nationwide release in Singapore tomorrow (December 10) via Golden Village Pictures.

In this interview with NME, Tan – who also works as a film lecturer and festival curator – talks about the power of working on a film in a community, retrofuturism, and how a style should serve the story, and not the other way around.

Tiong Bahru Social Club Tan Bee Thiam director interview 2020
Tan Bee Thiam. Courtesy the director

In your words, tell us what Tiong Bahru Social Club is all about.

The film is about home and what we feel about Singapore. I think it’s a film for anyone who calls Singapore home.

It’s about Singapore but it’s also about the current state of the world. In the past, we measured how well society functions in terms of GDP. Now there’s a new GDP: happiness, which the United Nations have come up with, and suddenly every government in every country is trying to measure and quantify how well they’ve done in terms of their performance.

There are countries like China who have used a kind of social credit or currency to reward and punish people, so I see it as something scary and absurd. If it is the future, what would life be in another five to ten years when all our data is collected? When the system would know more about us than we do?

Some of the themes in this film have been explored in other shows like Black Mirror. That show, along with the films of Wes Anderson, have been used as a frequent point of comparison to Tiong Bahru Social Club. How did you shape this world, and did those references come into play for you?

When we started building the universe of Tiong Bahru Social Club, there were certain things that were important to us. Although it is a film about the future and it’s a bit sci-fi, we wanted it to be a universe without mobile phones, computers, and cars. There are none of those things in the film. Whenever we shot in Tiong Bahru, we would stop whenever there was a car. And then, on set, the cast were told not to bring their phones. In the script, they would not be using handphones. Those things are, I think, very fun when we build such a universe.

The thing, I think, about the symmetry of Wes Anderson, which many people refer to, is actually more from [Yasujirō] Ozu. It’s more from the composition and colour palette of Ozu that we are using. So his later works, which are bursting in colour, I think that’s where we get our inspiration. With respect to the film, I think the symmetry [we employ] makes sense because we’re trying to create a certain uncomfortable symmetry. Almost as if there is a higher being that’s trying to make sure that nothing is out of place. It’s really to serve the story, rather than a style for the sake of a style.

How did you stop yourself from indulging in a style?

By having different collaborators. I worked very closely with our director of photography who’s also our editor. We had a production designer who built things for us, and we’ll bounce ideas for the aesthetics, so when it becomes too “Wes Anderson” then we’ll pull back — because it is not a Wes Anderson film, and it’s just not trying to be cute.

The pink in the reception area of the social club makes sense, it is supposed to make people happy. For the colours that we use in different parts of the spaces, it’s fun creating them because it’s creating the film world we’re imagining. The costume and makeup designers, we call them designers because they work with us in the pre-production to come up with the different looks. They play a key part in how the film ends up and how it looks.

Tiong Bahru Social Club Tan Bee Thiam Singapore
Tiong Bahru Social Club. Credit: 13 Little Pictures

I understand the casting process had a second round as well?

Yes, also because we decided to change the script.

What changed?

Quite a lot. From a story about a commune, it changed to a mother and son story. So then, the mother’s role is more present.

How much of the script was improvised?

Half. Part of the cast are non-actors. For those actors, there were lines, but we’d work with them and ask “actually, what are you not happy with?” and collaborate with them. With those actors, it’s quite fun as well, to get them on a set and experience what it’s like to act in front of a crew.

How long was the process of building the Ah Bee character with Thomas Pang?

It took about six months, on and off – because he’s such a popular theatre actor, you have to book him early. In between, he’s doing other work. He’s very good, he’s able to compartmentalise very well in between projects. That’s the beauty of working with a professional actor. So when I hear people say “theatre actors are only doing theatrical things”, that’s not true. When I think you’re an actor, you’re just an actor. If you give them the space, and tell them what you want, the professionals who are good in their craft [will get it].

Tiong Bahru Social Club Tan Bee Thiam
Tiong Bahru Social Club. Credit: 13 Little Pictures

Retrofuturism has such a strong presence in pop culture, and it plays a big part in illustrating the world in the movie. Was that a conscious decision to convey to the audience?

Yes. I really love the aesthetics of retrofuturism. I think it is very much the spirit of Tiong Bahru Social Club, to be in a space where it is timeless – where we do not know if we’re living in the past or the future. Especially for the [film’s themes], it’s almost like you’re not sure if you are living the dreams of your parents – whether you’ve lived up to their expectations, or whether you’re living your own life.

When I talk to my students, I think the weight of their parents’ expectations is so heavy – where you end up in the shadow of living someone else’s life. I think that’s dangerous and that’s not healthy. That might even be the cause of some of our stress and what we’re seeing today in a lot of young people. It’s very much in the spirit of the film: to portray how much love your parents give you, and what you do with it.

What you inherit?

Yes. Is it an inheritance of what they would like to do with their own life, or does that get passed on as pressure? I think that’s what I liked about that retrofuturism and how that connects with the film. Aesthetics-wise, it’s just amazing to see the sketches of what our future can be in these buildings and music that’s so groundbreaking that, even in the present today, we’re not ready for them. Again, it brings out the hope of what we want that’s not there yet.

Retrofuturism can also provide a sense of comfort when the future itself looks bleak. Do you share the same sentiment when looking towards the future?

I think I’m generally quite an optimistic guy, but I also feel that if people don’t have hope for the future – if a society has no hope for the future as well, it goes nowhere. There’s no sense of direction. It becomes a very depressing place, when society doesn’t share a common dream. I think that’s what makes the “American Dream” so great. The “Singapore Dream” cannot just be about the five Cs, even when these five Cs keep changing based on what the politicians want it to be. I think we need to dream bigger as a society.

I’m sure the film is also shaped by your own sense of optimism.

Yeah, some of the jokes in the film are from me and my collaborators. During takes, an actor will also come up with something of their own. That’s the beauty of making a film.

I didn’t want my debut film to be a film about me. In fact, there was a lot of resistance on my part to call the main character Ah Bee, but I also realised a lot of people are called “Ah Bee” by their families and friends. Some of the iconic characters [we’ve seen] on TV are also called by the same name. We used that as a common Singaporean name.

I didn’t want my first film to be about my personal story, so having collaborators was important to make sure it wasn’t just my own – for it to not be a personal, intimate story, because it becomes limited. I always believe a film should have a community and I should collect the stories. Collaborators are important, and they bring with them their sense of humour.

How are you feeling, while you ready yourself for the film’s release?

I’m excited for Singaporeans to see it. I’m excited that Golden Village has taken on the task to believe in the project and distribute it as well to a larger audience. I’m just grateful. Anything else more than that is just a bonus.

Tiong Bahru Social Club opens in Singaporean theatres on December 10