Bad Genius (Thailand, 2017) [NYAFF 2017]
In a competitive, status orientated society where students are defined by their GPA, does a little cheating really hurt if it helps some maintain a healthy relationship with their parents and enable others to qualify for the extra-curricular activities that they truly excel at? Perhaps not, but Bad Genius posits that enabling one’s classmates to boost their test scores through under the radar exam room communication is a slippery slope where the ensuing moral problems are trickier to solve than the most difficult math problem. Slickly executed yet far from weightless, this breathlessly entertaining teen caper from Nattawut Poonpiriya evidences a love for various Hollywood genres without forsaking any local identity. For instance, Vichaya Vatanasapt’s electronic score initially recalls the Tangerine Dream soundtracks for such 1980s teen pictures as Risky Business (1983) and Three O’Clock High (1987) but, like the rest of film, soon confidently strides away from its influences to a unique tone and rhythm.
The ringleader here is “Tutor” Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), a gifted straight-A scholarship student at an elite school who helps her “bestie” Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan) cheat her way through an exam so she can have the chance to appear in a drama production. It seems like a relatively harmless gesture, especially when the school links test scores to the opportunity for students to express themselves artistically, but this sly side to Lynn’s studious personality soon comes to the attention of Grace’s wealthy and opportunistic boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo). Soon, Lynn is cashing in by devising methods to communicate exam answers to a growing number of rich kids, only for her enterprise to be jeopardised when fellow scholarship student Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul) gets an inkling of what is going on. All of this is made to look small time, though, when Lynn is begged by Grace and Pat to help them pass the STIC exam in order to gain entrance to an international university, with the problem being that test is taken at the same date and time all over the world in strictly monitored conditions. Lynn’s daring plan involves flying to Australia to sit the exam with the benefit of a time difference in order to communicate the answers through a hidden mobile phone, with the upstanding Bank roped-in as her partner in crime.
Taking its cue from various heist or spy movies, Bad Genius is structured around three exams in which Lynn must simultaneously pass the test while helping less academically gifted students cheat their way through, with each exam room sequence being more audacious than the last. The development of these sequences also indicates the film’s gradual shift in tone from cheeky teen flick to a serious commentary on the lengths that today’s youngsters will go to in order to game the system. The first exam, in which Lynn provides Grace with the answers by writing them on an eraser, is almost heartwarming in its celebration of girlhood, no matter how morally misguided, but the second set piece, by which time Lynn’s network has widened, ups the suspense. For the big finale at the STIC test, Poonpiriya goes all out with fast edits as Lynn and Bank rush to make the most of the bathroom breaks and evade the monitors, but also incorporating old school close-ups of intense concentration as pressure causes both students to break into a nervous sweat. Poonpiriya even caps it off with a game of cat and mouse around the Sydney metro system with the resourceful Lynn apparently cornered but, crucially, always one step ahead.
As with all teen movies, Bad Genius hinges on its lead performances as Chuengcharoensukying and Santinatornkul are tasked with balancing screen presence with moments of awkwardness that befit their characters’ age group. Although the film places their scholarship students in a fast moving, high stakes plot, it is true to teenage life in its depiction of how bonds of friendship, and possibly romance, can form quickly only to be shattered in emotionally devastating fashion. Both performers are more than up to the task, creating complicated young protagonists who are well aware that the odds for success are stacked against them, regardless of academic aptitude. Unusually for a genre that traditionally thrives on audience identification as young viewers see their adolescent dreams and frustrations mirrored on the screen while older audience members wistfully look back, Lynn’s emotional state is not always immediately accessible. She’s clearly smart enough to realise that her well-off ‘friends’ are using her, so what is her motivation for deviating from her role as perfect student? The inscrutable manner of the charismatic Chuengcharoensukying leaves the viewer to contemplate whether Lynn has succumbed to the lure of easy money, become prematurely disillusioned with the system, or simply enjoys rebellious thrill seeking.
At the risk of spoiling the resolution, the moral guidelines of Thailand’s censorship system entail that the film’s protagonists must come to terms with their actions, but the emphasis on character development as worldviews shift as a result of seeing the workings of the system makes this a rare instance where appeasing the censor actually makes for a more satisfying experience.
Bad Genius opens the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 30 at the Walter Reade Theater at 7:00pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.
About The Author
John Berra is lecturer at Tsinghua University. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15) and co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).