Since the great days of the Chinatown cinemas, and then only intermittently, we have lost track of Thai movies outside Fah Talai Jone/Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand, 2002)
Tony Ja and the elephants, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s odd, spooky festival pieces.
Bad Genius, currently in Event complexes, now drops out of the sky. It has an unexpectedly polished professional texture, well lit, nicely framed images, vivid characters and an unfamiliar and relevant subject - academic cheating in Asia where exam results frequently take on extraordinary, unhealthy importance.
It has been a big earner on its home turf and had a prestige opening at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Bad Genius (can’t find an original language title) has an attention getting exposition where school girl Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying (picture that name on hoardings) makes instant calculations on the cost of attending a prestige high school, alarming her school teacher dad and impressing the recruiting head mistress who kicks in with a scholarship program to capture such a showpony student.
She is taken in hand by well-off but none too bright Eisaya Hosuwan who shows her how to do her hair for the school pass photo and introduces her to the circle of her high living boyfriend Teeradon Supapunpinyo. Trouble is Eisaya isn’t making the grades average that she needs to be admitted into the drama program so Chuengcharoensukying, who has been tutoring her, improvises a scheme to provide test answers on an eraser kicked to her in a shoe.
From this simple and quite tense scene the film builds to a million-baht racket with international flights, bike couriers, a printery running fake documents and hidden cell ‘phones.
The film comes up with some remarkably effective moments where lead falling out of a 2B pencil or a piece of broken porcelain sliding under a loo stall door can create a nailbiter. The climax with the two bright kids sitting the STIC/SAT exam in Sydney is a considerable piece of suspense drama. The reach occasionally also exceeds its grasp, as with showing the musical notation code or the lead trying to retain the crucial tune when surrounded by street distractions which don't really work.
Underlying the dramatic element is the comment in showing poor kids Chuengcharoensukying and Chanon Santinatornkul faced with desperate choices. Their well off class mates are buying their way ahead and corruption in the school system with under the counter payments and tutors leaking tests.
This is only the second feature for director Nattawut Poonpiriya after his New York drug crime piece Countdown which was well received. The young cast are making their first film which makes the touching performance by 21-year-old Chuengcharoensukying particularly remarkable. Her half relationship with fellow poor family achiever Santinatornkul is one of the film’s strengths. Deleting their incriminating selfie in front of the Sydney Opera House is as resonant as Yves Montand erasing traces of Stephania Sandrelli from his life in Police Python 357 (Alain Corneau, France, 1976).
Note that international exams can be seen to be supervised by black women with American accents in Australia. This should lay to rest any notion of a glass ceiling here. Screen NSW gets a credit - your tax dollars at work.
This one is worth a look before it vanishes into the nether world of subtitle free DVDs.