Reviewed by Maggie Lee for Variety from the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.
Dramatising the clever capers of Thai high school kids who formed an exam-cheating syndicate, "Bad Genius" deserves full marks for a whip-smart script that makes answering multiple-choice questions as nail-biting and entertaining as Ocean's Eleven. Produced by blockbuster powerhouse GHD (formerly GTH), the film is executed with that studio's trademark technical slickness and hip style, but director Nattawut Poonpiriya (Countdown) also offers subtle yet stinging insight into Thailand's class inequalities and corrupt school system.
By turning his nerdy egghead protagonists into hustler heroes, Poonpiriya calls out Asia's rote-learning and grades-obsessed academic culture. The film, which rocked domestic box office and sold all across Asia, is screaming for a remake -- and could well get noticed in the west after premiering stateside at the New York Asian Film Festival.
The film begins with a fait accompli: Exam papers of the Standard Test for International Colleges (STIC) have been leaked across several Asian countries. The student suspects' testimonies serve as a framing device throughout the film as more is revealed about their background and motives.
The central figure is Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), an unflappable math prodigy who has an answer for every question. During her entrance interview for Bangkok's most elite private school -- at which her teacher dad (Thaneth Warakuklnukroh) eagerly brandishes an armful of trophies she's won -- the self-confident young lady plays hard to get by rattling off all the expenses of studying like a math formula until the principal offers her a full scholarship.
Lynn may be a know-it-all, but she has zero social skills. On enrollment day, Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), the class flirt, is the only one who befriends her. It becomes her one soft spot, so when Grace begs her to help her pass an important test, she can't resist, resulting in a breathtaking stunt improvised with eraser and shoe.
Once she gets her hands dirty, there's no going back, especially after Grace's opportunistic boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) smells the money in it and spins a lucrative franchise around her. The cheating formula they come up with - an integration of Morse Code with classical piano concertos - is so ingenious it could inspire copycats at school, and is absolutely hilarious to see unfold onscreen.
The plot thickens when Lynn finally meets her match, or nemesis, with the arrival of Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul), another straight-A student who not only steals her thunder at a national quiz, but also competes with her for a coveted college scholarship in Singapore.
"Bad Genius" supplies a fresh angle to the frenemy formula as Lynn and Bank clash on intellectual as well as ethical grounds, while awkwardly falling for one another as only geeks can. By the time the two take off to Sydney for the STIC test, the richly layered screenplay has stacked up enormous stakes through a complex web of motives, from money and misguided loyalty to one-upmanship and the urge to kick against the educational establishment.
Their game plan, masterminded by Lynn and executed by Pat, Grace and a contingent of desperate students, is as elaborate as a heist, featuring gizmos that wouldn't look out of place in a Mission: Impossible movie. Like any heist film, there are the unanticipated glitches -- these happen in a toilet, shot in wacky, inventive angles by DP Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun, and culminate in a subway chase that's choreographed and paced like a crime thriller.
Even if the setup is not totally convincing, at least it offers students a sweet fantasy. At the same time, the shenanigans underline a rigged social system that privileges the rich from childhood. Sitting the exams is always presented as a nerve-racking experience for Lynn and Bank, whose talents or diligence are funneled into serving the lazy or dumb brats whose parents can afford to pay. The film also alludes to schools' corrupt practices of charging "tea money" for students who can't make the grades, as the homeroom teacher provides cheat sheets to pupils who pay for his after-school tutorials.
The screenplay shrewdly draws our protagonists' personality and class differences, including Pat's hereditary enterprising instincts and knack for using people, or Grace's subtle emotional blackmail of Lynn (that she's the diva of the school drama club leads one to question whether her friendship with Lynn is just a performance).
By contrast, Lynn and Bank have the brains but not the socially groomed cunning of their classmates. So it is especially saddening to see Bank's loss of innocence, when he eventually realises that even getting top grades and going to a good university can only get one so far without family wealth and connections. And it's the subtler class distinctions between them, and the fact that Lynn is intellectually gifted while Bank only has a photographic memory, that chip away at their feelings for each.
The young cast burst with energy and have great comic timing. Teen model Chuengcharoensukying makes an eye-catching screen debut, radically transforming from square, gawky teacher's pet to anti-social rebel to finally making peace with who she is or wants to be, while Warakuklnukroh ("Pop Aye") is a warm and nurturing presence as her sad-sack father.
Watch 'Bad Genius'
Saturday 23 January, 10:10pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Monday 25 January, 2:35am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Crime
Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya
Starring: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Eisaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo