“School is our first dictatorship” a collection of students exclaims in Sorayos Prapapan’s absurdist satire Arnold is a Model Student (อานนเป็นนักเรียนตัวอย่าง). Drawing inspiration from the Bad Student movement, the film positions the educational system as a microcosm of the whole as the students find themselves trying of petty authoritarian oppressions and the infinite corruption of the very mechanism they are told allows them to take control over their futures even as it denies them the right to self-expression or individual freedom.
In his last year of high school, Arnold (Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg) has brought great praise to his institution after winning a gold medal in the maths Olympiad. Arnold is, however, far from a model student. Low-key rebellious he ignores all rules and does as he pleases but is largely allowed to get away with it because of his value to the school as a symbol of their own success especially as they are currently in the running for an award from the Ministry of Education. Then again this lack of censure seems to tug at Arnold’s sense of conscience wondering what the point of the rules is if they simply don’t apply to him in the same way they apply to others. Mrs. Wanee (Niramon Busapavanich), the school’s most authoritarian disciplinarian, is fond of saying that the rules are necessary for a harmonious society but even the students can see they’re mostly about preserving her own power and status.
In some way perhaps Mrs. Wanee isn’t so different from authoritarian teachers anywhere else in the world if a little more extreme in literally snipping students’ hair if she judges it to be an inappropriate length on her morning inspections. A trio of girls giggle about a man with mental health problems who was hiding in the bathrooms at a shopping mall to snip women’s hair for his wig shop and only then realise that it’s not really all that different to what Mrs Wanee is doing to them in restricting their rights to free expression over the way they look and dress. What seems to her proper discipline seems to them absurd and oppressive and even worse inculcating in them a tolerance for authoritarianism that enables the survival of corrupt dictatorship.
In essence this is an elite school but as proud as it is of kids like Arnold, who appears to come from a wealthy family, it’s also true that most of its pupils have got in through thinly concealed bribery as parents agree to make “donations” in return for the headmaster finding a place for their less able children. Yet Arnold’s privilege only contributes to his rootlessness and lack of purpose. He doesn’t know what to do with his life in part because he has no real impetus to make a decision and few constraints on his choices. When other students ask him to join the protest movement he refuses stating that he doesn’t see the point, they’ll be finished with school in a few months anyway, thinking solely of himself and making the calculation that the smart thing to do is nothing.
He finds himself similarly conflicted when taken under the wing of dodgy cram school teacher (Winyu Wongsurawat) who runs a scam operation getting talented students to help weaker ones cheat in exams as a fast track path to stable government jobs. Arnold is disadvantaging himself twice over, taking the money but increasing his competition while remaining complicit with corruption, fostering poor government in allowing those without the proper skills to prosper and hold on to their unearned privilege. Resentful that his father, a French citizen, was deported for criticising the government, what Arnold wants is to go abroad but in doing so he’d also be leaving those unable to protect themselves behind simply harnessing his own privilege to remove himself from the system rather than actively resist it.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the resistance is largely led by the female students who eventually tell the headmaster that they no longer care if he expels them because there will always be students coming behind them who also will resist and expelling them all would be entirely counterproductive. Sorayos Prapapan’s deadpan approach signals the absurdity of the culture in the schools system in which pupils are given pointless lessons in citizenship which are little more than nationalist propaganda while forced to learn proper “manners” which is also only another way to bow to authority. The director even inserts a scene of a boy with his own name who has to kneel before a teacher and recite his times tables, while the school’s downfall comes about through the new medium of youth resistance TikTok as Sorayos Prapapan includes what appears to be real footage of students receiving corporal punishment in this contemporary era. Ironically the lesson that students learn is that authoritarianism must be challenged at its roots and that only by standing together can they hope to defeat it. Quirky yet clear eyed and heartfelt Sorayos Prapapan’s gentle satire is at least somewhat hopeful in the determination of the young people not to fall for the promise of superficial success in a corrupt system but to fight hard for the freedom they know to be rightfully theirs.
Arnold Is a Model Student screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.
Original trailer (dialogue free)