Tiong Bahru Social Club – Interview with Filmmaker Tan Bee Thiam

Tiong Bahru Social Club follows 30-year-old Ah Bee, a guy who lives with his mother. Ah Bee stops working at his old job, and with the recommendation of his mother, he applies to work and live at the TBSC, a data-driven project to create the happiest neighborhood in the world.

Borrowing Tape scored an interview with the director/co-writer of Tiong Bahru Social Club, Tan Bee Thiam — as part of our Fantasia International Film Festival (2021) coverage.

Tiong Bahru Social Club screened at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

What was the inspiration for Tiong Bahru Social Club?

The film is based on my interactions with my mum and what she talks about with her friends in an aging society; and also me as a teacher, teaching a career guidance class to my students how they can find a job and be successful in the future.

How did you find the process of collaborating with Screenwriter Antti Toivonen?

Although the story idea may come from a personal place, I have no desire to make an autobiographical film. I love to find collaborators, who can work with me to play with the creative possibilities and expand the stories and connections so it becomes something more. Antti and I would meet every other fortnight to talk and write over a few years. One of the things I appreciated about Antti is that he is open and very game for new ideas. Because this is his first debut feature script, he doesn't have any baggage and it was a thoroughly enjoyable process bouncing all the outrageous ideas we have. Through research and interviews with residents in Tiong Bahru and Pearl Bank, we were able to excavate interesting stories and characters. Other key collaborators in our writing process include director of photography and editor Looi Wan Ping, producer Huang Junxiang and production designer James Page, who worked with us in the many revisions of the script. Yeo Siew Hua and Daniel Hui from the 13 Little Pictures collective also contributed to the script.

Why does Ah Bee return home when he was performing so well at the Tiong Bahru Social Club?

The simple answer is that he has achieved what he set out to do and that was enough for him. The first half is about filling the glass full and the second half is about emptying it. When Ah Bee submits himself to the Taoist Philosophy of Non-action (wu wei), things come full circle.

Tiong Bahru Social Club is such a colorful and brightly shot movie. Can you tell us about what it was like working with Cinematographer/Editor Wan Ping Looi?

Wan Ping is a very talented filmmaker in his own right and we have worked together on many films under the 13 Little Pictures film collective. He shot my short film Kopi Julia (2013) and we have co-directed Fundamentally Happy (2015). I've also produced films he directed and edited, as Lei Yuan Bin (White Days, 03-Flats), and also films that he shot (Demons, As You Were, Red Dragonflies). One of his greatest strengths as a Director of Photography is that he also edits, so he can see how the film can be shot to be pieced together later. He is very creative and generous in sharing his ideas, so I really enjoy working with him as a collaborator.

Do cats signify anything in the movie?

The film asks what makes us happy. It also asks what makes us human. Like many snippets in the film, the cat is based on the true story of Bob the Cat, a beloved neighborhood cat, who would go on random house visits in Tiong Bahru. In 2011, Bob met with a car accident and in no time, the residents banded together to raise funds for his medical bills. The residents have since taken turns to care for Bob and whenever Bob needed medical help again, they would come together to support him. Today, Bob is still wandering the Tiong Bahru alleys and getting into fights with other cats. When I heard this story, I thought, if we can care for everyone like how the Tiong Bahru residents did for Bob, we would be in such a happy place.

Could you tell us about the animation used in Tiong Bahru Social Club?

The animation sequences in the film are used like flight safety manuals to teach people the 101 about human touch and how to be intimate with one another. It is first used in the cuddling workshop and then the 1 to 1 sex workshop.

What were the creative reasons behind the set and costume design in Tiong Bahru Social Club?

The production design and costume design are an integral part in building the story world of Tiong Bahru Social Club, a whimsical universe where the locations, sets, props, costumes, hair, and makeup are designed with precise color coordination and uncanny symmetry as if there’s an invisible hand shaping a bonsai.

What are your favorite scenes — from directing on set and in the final cut?

One of my favorite scenes are the complaint scenes, working with non-professional actors to come up with their favorite bugbears living in Singapore. We have scripted some but it's always more fun to work with real people to improvise. Even the complaint scene between Ah Bee and his mum was improvised. I asked Guat Kian (playing the mum) what she thought she would say to her son at this point in the story and she wrote something on her phone and we worked together during the shoot to make the scene work.

What do you hope for audiences to get from watching the movie?

A feeling of loss and hope at the same time, a coexistence that is life.

Which films and directors have influenced you as a filmmaker, including Tiong Bahru Social Club?

I am inspired by the silent comedies of Buster Keaton, the composition and colors of Yasujirō Ozu (Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon), and the mise en scène and sound design of Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime). I am also inspired by Yoji Yamada's Tora-san series, recommended to me by the late Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad. Other references include the paintings of David Hockney, the photographs of Nguan, the music of Kraftwerk, and the writings of Lao Tzu and Kuo Pao Kun.

What are some of your favorite movies from the past decade?

Some of my favorite movies in the past decades are From What Is Before by Lav Diaz, Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) by Abbas Fahdel, An Elephant Sitting Still by Hu Bo, A Sun by Chung Mong-Hong.

From Singapore, I love Snakeskin by Daniel Hui, 03-Flats by Lei Yuan Bin, A Land Imagined by Yeo Siew Hua, and Red Dragonflies by Liao Jiekai

Which themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?

As a filmmaker, I am interested in what people remember and what they forget.