Bad Genius ฉลาดเกมส์โกง (Thailand, 2017). A Jor Kwang Films Production, distributed by Gross Domestic Happiness 559, Limited. 2 hour 10 minutes. Aspect ratio, 2:35:1. Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya. Screenplay: Nattawut Poonpiriya, Tanida Hantaweewatana, Vasudhorn Piyaromna. Cinematography: Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun . Editor: Chonlasit Upanigkit. Music: Hualampong Riddim.
CAST: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying (Rinrada/Lynn), Chanon Santiatornkul (Thanaphon/Banks), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Steve Pat), Eisaya Hosuwan (Grace), Thaneth Warakulnokroh (Lynn's Father).
This Thai film has snuck into iTunes and other stateside streaming services without fanfare, but is not receiving the word-of-mouth support it deserves. No North American or European DVD/Blu Ray seems to be available currently (not even in Germany!) as of today [May 18, 2018], and as far as I know no US or European label has picked it up for the optic media disc market. Which is too bad, as Bad Genius is one of the most ingeniously entertaining Thai films that I have seen in some time. Uncle Bunmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this ain't, but neither is it another long-haired-ghost horror opus, nor another muay-thai-fueled martial arts actioner.
The film's poster makes one think that it is a lightweight teen comedy, which might be partly responsible for its under-the-radar status stateside. True, Bad Genius does exude a degree of sub-MTV, high-school hi-jinks vibe to it, especially in the first half, but you must believe me when I tell you that it subtly morphs right in front of your eyes into a thrilling nail-biter and a caper film, and eventually, I kid you not, a kind of junior film noir (one is reminded of Rian Johnson's Brick, although these movies could not be more different in tone from one another). No one fires a gun, nor even puff a cigarette (ubiquitous in Korean movies set in high schools!), but the protagonists Lynn and Banks might as well be noir characters stuck in teenager's bodies, half-willingly sucked into the whirlpools of increasingly high-stakes criminal schemes, all the while having to negotiate relationships with their so-called friends/clientele, authority figures (including one's family members) and, in the end, each other, none of whom they can entirely trust.
This situation would not appear far-fetched in the least, in fact would be instantly recognizable to most Asian viewers, not just the Thai local audience (it was the biggest domestic hit film of 2017, grossing more than $42 million in its initial theatrical run), because they all share the culture of extreme competition for excellence in school grades as well as unrelenting pressure exerted on the children to get into "high-ranking" colleges and universities. In East and Southeast Asian nations, the academic competition in secondary schools is often so stiff that it has created gargantuan "tutoring" industries that are ironically threatening to dwarf the "normal" educational institutions in the size of money they command (The total expense gobbled up by these "private education" services in South Korea, in 2016 alone, was vertigo-inducing 18 trillion won).
Lynn is a math genius, an apple in the eye of her former schoolteacher single father. She is transferred to a more prestigious private high school, but extracts full scholarship from the principal by driving a hard bargain. Brilliant, but angry at the economic disparity that puts a select group of students at disadvantage almost at the point of birth, Lynn is befriended by the rich ne'er-do-well Pat and the cute but immature Grace. When Lynn helps Grace score in a math exam by passing the correct answers written on a pencil eraser, she becomes the go-to person for what appears to be half of the school, who shower her with baht bills so that they could improve their grades. Pretending to give her clientele piano lessons, Lynn develops musical-note-based codes to relay the answers to the multiple-choice questions to them, resulting in some amusing but unexpectedly suspenseful sequences of a bunch of students trying to decipher her deft finger movements on the school desk, while watched over by ever-suspicious proctors.
At one point, Lynn is almost busted by her only competitor to the Singaporean international scholarship, "Banks" (I assume this is an English nickname, meant to mock the way Thanaphon, his real name, is tight with money). She is drawn to his ethical principles as well as his suppressed rage, having grown up in an even less privileged environment than hers, a seedy laundromat managed by his single mother. Unfortunately, like a drug dealer or an assassin in a noir film, Lynn deceives herself that she could retire after one final "big score," with the loot (or, to be precise, money pot) reaching several million baht, many times the annual salary of any respectable middle-class job she could expect to land after graduating with all As. It involves cheating at the STIC (standardized tests for international colleges: sounds like a fictional version of SAT or ACT, in other words, a qualification exam for entering US colleges), making use out of the time lag between one test site (in this case, Sydney, Australia) and another (in Bangkok). And she needs a partner in crime: no one other than Banks could do the job. Will he agree to do it?
The screenplay by director Poonpiriya and two other partners is actually quite clever and impressively character-oriented. Lynn and Banks are nerdy high school students, but they also behave like special agents in Mission: Impossible movies, carefully practicing their routines to fool the surveying eyes of the adults and coming up with desperate, on-the-spot solutions to sudden, unanticipated obstacles. Poonpiriya's direction is trendy (overusing slow motion in an ironic mode, for instance) but also very good, staging emotional confrontations and suspense sequences in school corridors and bathrooms with considerable skills.
The best thing about his direction is that he refuses to play dumb kids for laughs, or frame rich friends of Lynn as crass villains (although Pat comes close to being one). As Poonpiriya sees it, these rich kids are just as much victims of their craven parents, as a hilarious but cringe-inducing scene, in which Grace is "bought" by Pat's parents to tag along with him to Boston University, shows. Moral culpability is extended to all parties, including the Thai school system, the US colleges and testing agencies, even Lynn's father, who grovels at demeaning remarks of the high school principal, in order to put her through the admission. He initially does not see that such behavior in the name of helping her diminishes himself in her eyes, stoking her resentment about the unfair social system and her desire to cheat it.
Chuengcharoensukying (known as "Aokbab" in Thailand: I suppose it is not just we non-Thais who flop onto the floor trying to properly remember and pronounce the names of the actors) as Lynn is a real find, a lanky, severe-looking young actress who projects both keen intelligence and the yearning to find an internal moral compass that could guide her actions. Supporting actors are not quite as powerful, but Aokbab has no trouble carrying the whole picture on her shoulders. Her best scenes are with Warakulnokroh (apparently a very famous rock singer-DJ-music producer in Thailand whose career goes back to early '80s), as the latter's beguiling if uncomprehending expressions of love and concern gradually melt her icy defenses: it is also to the credit of Poonpiriya that Lynn's father never becomes a preachy moral center of the film (perhaps except at the very end, which feels just a tad tacked-on to get approval from the mainstream viewers).
Bad Genius does not quite work all the time, although its running time does not feel long even at two hours and ten minutes. At times its slick editing, exaggerated close-ups of the pencil tips and answer sheets and other cool mises-en-scenes threaten to come off as superficial. There are also a few bizarre touches, such as the ridiculously exaggerated threat embodied by a Sydney STIC exam site's proctor, who looks and growls like Tall Man from Phantasm movies: you expect him at any minute to point to Lynn, squint hard and bellow "Girrrrl!!"
All in all, nonetheless, Bad Genius is a pleasant surprise, a caper film-slash-film noir that uses its cutthroat school environment to provide plenty of real suspense as well as some powerful character-oriented drama. It handily beats the majority of Asian crime thrillers with pointless (misogynistic) violence and same-'ol macho nihilism masquerading as left-wing critique. Besides, a movie that mercilessly exposes the complete, absurd failure of a Scantron-style multiple choice examination system to evaluate a student's academic (we are not even talking about other more difficult-to-measure qualities such as critical thinking and leadership) abilities can count on my total support anytime.
Blu Ray Presentation:
INFO (South Korea). NTSC, Region Free. Video: Widescreen 2.35:1. Audio: Thai DTS-HD MA 5.1. Subtitles: Korean, English & Chinese. Supplements: Making-of documentary, Theatrical Trailer. YesAsia retail price: $41.99. Street date: April 4, 2018.
Bad Genius is presented in a sparkling HD transfer by the South Korean label INFO, in what I am guessing is based on the HD master supplied by GDH 559. I have not had a chance to check Taiwan and Hong Kong editions, except that the latter more aggressively markets it as a teen comedy (with the Chinese title "Get-A Special Forces," which, technically speaking, accurately describes the movie…). The South Korean version at least gets the "nail-biting suspense" part right (one of the blurbs on the Blu Ray case, in fact, specifically refers to the Variety review to emphasize that characterization).
The contrast level is excellent, neither artifacts nor DNR issues declare themselves. The visual palette is surprisingly gritty and realistic, not as colorful or glamorous as one might expect from other recent Thai films. The DTS-HD sound is suitably energetic.
The South Korean special edition includes a stack of mini-posters and character cards with the young stars posing with hand-signs pointing to numbers from one to four. Unfortunately, the making-of documentary is a standard Sinophone EPK fluff. It at least comes with English subtitles. The Sydney location gets a lot of coverage, but little background information is given on the real-life high-tech exam-cheating scandals (such as this) that had no doubt inspired the movie, something that a future North American and/or European Blu Ray release should consider including as a supplement.