Many people can relate to, have associated to, or will relate to Ah Bee, hero of the near-future, tech-fantasy movie, Tiong Bahru Social Membership. He lives together with his mother in a excessive rise residence constructing in Singapore. And as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, he lives a cushty however fairly unglamorous life—an workplace job throughout the day, a seat on the sofa in entrance of the TV and subsequent to mother every evening. With this huge spherical quantity birthday gifting his household a brand new stage of tension, they determine it is time for a change.
Ah Bee (played by Thomas Pang) abruptly finds himself in a brand new position as the newest Happiness Agent on the Tiong Bahru Social Membership (TBSC), a neighborhood residing experiment the place choices are pushed by an algorithm measuring happiness. TBSC is a developer whose amenities ostensibly serve aged Singapore residents like Ah Bee’s mom, however every resident will get paired with a youthful Happiness Agent who turns into chargeable for their happiness. Happiness Brokers get new roles or perks at TBSC based mostly on each their resident’s and the general neighborhood’s Happiness Index. And TBSC tries to optimize every agent by always monitoring their emotions (brokers put on Happiness Rings permitting the corporate to trace how actions impression an agent’s happiness) and providing continuous coaching (every little thing from bettering your chortle to mastering three totally different hug strategies).
At first, Ah Bee appears to be having fun with his new existence simply advantageous regardless of being paired with Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han), an older girl who adores cats and clearly prefers one in every of her fingers over all others. However “advantageous”—happiness scores hovering in between 40-60—does not hold administration at TBSC off your again. New plans for Ah Bee are clearly coming.
Higher than an HOA?
Tiong Bahru Social Membership might sound just like the premise for some darkish, near-future, dystopian techno thriller. And it’s, kind of. It is a whimsical black comedy. It is as if a Black Mirror premise (possibly a twist on that early episode with Daniel Kaluuya) was combined with Wes Anderson sensibilities proper right down to a Futura-esque credit font (so possibly Grand Budapest Lodge, simply with algorithms as an alternative of Nazis). In contrast to the frilly casts and over-the-top storylines of Anderson’s work, the plot right here could be a little skinny and the entire movie’s characters past Ah Bee and Ms. Wee appear a bit below explored. Specifically, TBSC supervisor Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohamed) has a nefarious undercurrent to every little thing she does, nevertheless it’s left untouched. And Happiness Agent Geok (Jo Tan) might have the best Happiness Index rating, however she appears unspoken-ly dissatisfied. She ultimately will get paired with Ah Bee as TBSC administration tries to enhance each brokers, however Geok’s wishes and ideas by no means actually turn out to be a central focus of any scene.
Nonetheless, the manufacturing design and visible choices will elicit smirks even when stopping to consider the idea of a TBSC-like neighborhood is persistently miserable. Rooms at TBSC appear like the chicest historic resort renovated for the near-future, with rounded mid-century furnishings and a great deal of pinks, purples, and turquoises. Happiness Brokers’ uniforms may double as costuming for the Polyphonic Spree, whereas administration should’ve frolicked with Stanley Tucci in The Starvation Video games. And there are lots of, many absurdist particular person frames or sequences to be loved: panning throughout Ms. Wee’s hand-painted cat portraits all in a row as she tells Ah Bee how they died; zooming out on a gaggle of Happiness Brokers as they primarily do a synchronized swimming routine in youngsters’s arm floaties; a mass of previous residents chanting for Ah Bee within the streets. As Ah Bee, Pang approaches all of it with a stage of stylized deadpan Invoice Murray may admire.
As enjoyable as Tiong Bahru Social Membership is to take a look at, the movie could also be much more pleasant to ponder. You possibly can name it dystopian satire, however actually TBSC-style entities exist already on a sliding scale from amusing (your Apple Watch might remind you to breath, stroll, and keep in mind it is your mom’s birthday) to downright horrifying (China’s social credit score concept). The broader idea of counting on tech to diagnose dissatisfaction or failure and maximize happiness or completion is so frequent it is now mundane; it is an strategy already lurking in lots of apps, wearables, subscription providers, and social platforms of in the present day. A minimum of, in actual life, we have largely acknowledged the imperfections with this.
In equity, the tech seemingly does effectively for Ah Bee. He lands in an exquisite residence, alongside a wonderfully matched accomplice, with a job that offers him objective—all chosen for him by an optimizing algorithm. “You are a winner,” his room AI assistant proudly declares. However Ah Bee’s ideas inform viewers in any other case: “Fashionable society presents us with too many choices, however they’re all an phantasm. The one determination I make in life is to make no choices.” By signing a comically hard-to-read ToS (phrases of service) upon entry, he is willingly given himself over to the machines in probably the most specific method attainable. At TBSC, he and Geok do not even have to consider intimacy, because the AI units the environment and supplies its people charts(!) for any actions it might’t take itself. Ah Bee later unironically quotes thinker Lao Tzu, “It is the vacancy inside that makes a vessel helpful.” Leveraging invasive fashionable tech to the fullest means abandoning free will to a level.
The movie’s different huge theme does middle on what all this fancy tech units out to maximise—happiness. Ah Bee is maybe probably the most silent (learn: dialogue-light) character this aspect of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Issues occur to him, however not often does he provoke. So when he does converse, particularly within the movie’s closing third, it actually implies that is what’s been consuming his thoughts the entire time. After an algorithmic-affair with Geok, she turns to him of their good residence to ask a easy query, Are you content? After residing on such a tailor-made, holistic observe for this lengthy, Ah Bee appears caught off guard. “How are you aware?” he responds.
Ah Bee’s saga exhibits that happiness will at all times take a whole lot of varieties even in a world the place one explicit imaginative and prescient of it—that idealistic Instagram sheen utilized to journey or parenting or inventive work or cooking or linear profession development or no matter—will get propagated time and again by algorithms merely seeking to maximize engagement. The TBSC’s mannequin rewards smiles, group footage, and intercourse, nevertheless it does not see worth in adoration for a quiet night sit below the celebrities or a dialog exploring something that is not clearly completely satisfied. Ah Bee’s final selection signifies one dimension matches all happiness, even a taste justified by the very best knowledge out there, will probably by no means work. TBSC’s subsequent strikes, although, counsel firms won’t ever cease making an attempt—particularly if there’s extra marketshare available.
Tiong Bahru Social Membership is presently out there via VOD as a part of the 2021 hybrid version of the nice style occasion, Fantasia Fest. The movie continues to play the pageant circuit in any other case, and the hottest availability will be discovered on the film’s Facebook page.