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Behind-The-Scenes with Local Film Director, Mr Tan Bee Thiam

Last March, SUSS film students got the rare opportunity to virtually meet and learn from talented film director, Mr Tan Bee Thiam, in a series of talks hosted by the Minor programme in Film Studies. The talks are held in hopes of exposing students to the unique conditions and expectations behind local filmmaking.

Mr Tan’s session was a cosy one, joined by about twenty students who were eager to hear his detailed sharing on the making of Tiong Bahru Social Club, a Singaporean black comedy, written and directed by Mr Tan himself.

The Tiong Bahru Social Club tells the story of a simple man who accidentally becomes a happiness agent in an artificial intelligence cult community. Released in theatres in December 2020, the film ran for 10 consecutive weeks and has been accepted into several film festivals, such as the Busan International Film Festival, Taipei Golden Horse, Osaka Asian Film Festival, ASEAN Cinema Week in South Korea, Fantasia International Film Festival and New York Asian Film Festival.  It has also been invited to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the largest film festival in Southern California dedicated to showcasing films by and about Asians & Pacific Islanders around the world, from 23rd September to 2nd October 2021.

Virtual Film Studies Talk with Mr Tan Bee Thiam

In his sharing, Mr Tan gave a thorough breakdown of his filmmaking journey, including experiences working with the cast and crew. He described everything, from achieving sound to visual optimality. This included how the music was composed, sound was recorded, dialogue was cleaned up and more. To ensure the best quality, he even specified on the use of colour grading, special effects and later mentioned that he went to the extent of waiting for months to film the demolition of Pearl Bank Apartments, which played a crucial role in the film.

Mr Tan noted that he strongly encourages his cast and crew to take risks and improvise, which led to some fresh and unsuspecting choices from set design to costumes and acting.  For example, while scouting out a house to film in, the crew discovered a large sunken space under a carpet which surfaced as potential and was worked into the script, to great effect.

Bee Thiam explained how the film’s soundtrack was created

Apart from offering practical filmmaking tips and advice, Mr Tan passionately talked about creating an inclusive culture while working. He stressed on the importance of respecting cast and crew to cultivate a comfortable and collaborative working environment for all. This was especially important for Tiong Bahru Social Club as there were many elderly non-actors playing the denizens of Tiong Bahru.

“I would invite (the non-actors) to see what we have shot, so that they feel a sense of ownership and get involved, and engaged in the process,” he said when asked about working with non-professional actors. 

Mr Tan also revealed that many people were surprised he chose to make the film largely in English, as more local films tend to be made in Mandarin. He insisted on an English film, injected with colloquial slang, so that the people around him could appreciate and relate to his work.

“I want to make a Singapore film where every race and language is represented, so that it will feel real and familiar in terms of the characters and the world that you build.”

SUSS alumna Sophia (casting coordinator), Khoo Sim Eng (HoP of Film Studies), Antti Toivonen (writer), Tan Bee Thiam (writer-director), Huang Junxiang (producer) while filming Tiong Bahru Social Club.

Intrigued by the talk, Muhammad Iman Hakim bin Sugen, one of the student participants, shared, “I found his talk informative and insightful. I particularly liked hearing about the artistic decisions taken for the film.” His sentiments were similarly shared by many others.

Thankfully, this would not be the last Film Studies Talk for SUSS’ students as the programme aims to regularly invite filmmakers to speak to both students and alumni! Stay tuned for the next filmmaker event to come!

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