The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Sophon Sakdaphisit, 2017)

The Promise Thai 2018 poster20 years on the Asian financial crisis continues to loom large over the region’s cinema, providing fertile ground for extreme acts of transgression born of desperation in the wake of such a speedy decline. Sophon Sakdaphisit’s ghost story The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Puen Tee Raluek) places the financial crisis at its centre in its cyclical tales of betrayed youth who find themselves paying heavily for their parents’ mistakes through no fault of their own. Yet there is a fault involved in the betraying of a sacred promise between two vulnerable young people made half in jest in a fit of pique but provoking tragic consequences all the same. Sometimes lonely death chases the young too, trapping them in solitary limbo growing ever more resentful of their heinous betrayal.

In 1997, Ib (Panisara Rikulsurakan) and Boum (Thunyaphat Pattarateerachaicharoen) are best friends. Daughters of wealthy industrialists making an ill fated move into real estate with the building of a luxury tower block destined never to be completed, Boum and Ib may have been separated by being sent to different schools, but they spend all of their free time together, often hiding out on the construction site fantasising about sharing an apartment there and listening to sad songs on Ib’s ever present Discman.

When the crisis hits and their fathers are ruined, the girls pay the price. Not only are they left feeling betrayed and humiliated in being so abruptly ejected from their privileged world of mansions and horse riding, but also suffer at the hands of the fathers they now despite – Ib more literally as she is physically beaten by her strung out, frustrated dad. Already depressed, Ib talks ominously about a gun her mother has hidden in fear her father may use it to kill himself. When Boum falls out with her mum, she gives the go ahead for a double suicide but can’t go through with it after watching the twitching body of her friend, lying in a pool of blood after firing a bullet up through her chin.

20 years later, Boum (Numthip Jongrachatawiboon) is a successful industrialist herself, apparently having taken over her father’s company and turned it around. The economy is, however, once again in a precarious position and Boum’s business is floundering thanks to a set back on a high profile project. The idea is floated to finish the tower left incomplete by the ’97 crisis to which Boum reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Boum’s daughter Bell (Apichaya Thongkham) is about to turn 15 – the same age as she was when she agreed to die with Ib, and has recently started sleepwalking in ominous fashion.

Sophon Sakdaphisit neatly compares and contrasts the teenagers of 20 years ago and those of today and finds them not altogether different. In 1997, Boum and Ib keep in touch with pagers and visit photo sticker booths in the mall, splitting earphones to listen to a Discman while they take solitary refuge at the top of a half completed tower. In 2017, Bell never sees her friend in person but keeps in touch via video messaging, posting photos on instagram, and sending each other songs over instant messenger. Yet Bell, in an ominous touch, still graffitis walls to make her presence felt just as her mother had done even if she fetishises the retro tech of her mother’s youth, picking up an abandoned pager just because it looks “cool”.

In 2017, the now widowed Boum appears to have no close friends though her relationship with her daughter is tight and loving. A “modern” woman, Boum dismisses the idea that a malevolent spirit could be behind her daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour but finds it hard to argue with the CCTV footage which seems almost filled with the invisible presence of something dark and angry. Realising that the circumstances have converged to bring her teenage trauma back to haunt her – Ib’s suicide, the tower, her daughter’s impending birthday, Boum is terrified that Ib has come back to claim what she was promised and plans to take her daughter in her place in revenge for her betrayal all those years ago.

Bell is made to pay the price for her mother’s mistakes, as she and Ib were made to pay for their fathers’. Motivated by intense maternal love, Boum nevertheless is quick to bring other people’s children into the chain of suffering when she forces a terrified little boy who has the ability to see ghosts to help her locate the frightening vision of her late friend as she darts all over the dank and spooky tower block, threatening the financial security of his family all of whom work for her company and are dependent on her for their livelihoods.

In order to move forward, Boum needs to address her longstanding feelings of guilt regarding her broken promise – the suicide was, after all, her idea even if she was never really serious and after witnessing her friend die in such a violent way, she simply ran away and left her there all alone and bleeding. Yet rather than attempting to keep her original promise Boum makes a new one with her imperilled daughter – that she will keep on living, no matter what. The slightly clumsy message being that commitment to forward motion is the only way to leave the past behind, accepting your feelings of guilt and regret but learning to let them go and the ghosts dissipate. Sophon Sakdaphisit makes use of the notorious, believed haunted Bangkok tower to create an eerie, supernaturally charged atmosphere of malevolence but the ghosts are in a sense very real, recalling the turbulence of two decades past in which fear and hysteria ruled and young lives were cut short by a nihilistic despair that even friendship could not ease.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

Bad GeniusesThe world over, education is held up as the best path out of poverty but it is also true that the cards are stacked against those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds when it comes to academic success. Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Chalard Games Goeng) is part exam-set heist movie, morality play, coming of age tale, and attack on social inequality. Bright kids study hard for scholarships that will send them to foreign universities and then onto a secure middle-class life, but while they work themselves to the bone the less able rich kids get there first thanks to the resources and connections their wealth brings them. When locked out of a system, attacking it from underneath seems like a good idea, but then again there are always hidden dangers even the finest mind fails to see.

Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is an extremely bright girl. Her father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a schoolteacher, wants to send her to an exclusive high school which has a reputation for sending graduates to foreign universities. Lynn’s achievements are impeccable and there’s very little chance the school won’t want her but her interview starts to go south when she wavers on the question of whether she actually wants to go there. Showing off her maths skills, Lynn proves that her dad will be paying a lot more in additional costs on top of the fees and she’s not sure it’s worth it.

This piece of honesty coupled with her swift mental arithmetic gets her offered a scholarship but Lynn finds it hard to settle in to her new “elite environment” until she ends up bonding with the less bright but cheerful and bubbly Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan). Things begin to come unstuck when Lynn ends up helping Grace cheat on a test so that she can achieve her dream of acting in the school play. Grace has a big mouth and so her boyfriend, Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), also wants in on the action. Pat is not Lynn’s friend and she’s not keen but when he offers her a substantial amount of money Lynn can’t help but be swayed. Soon enough it’s not just Pat and Grace but half the school and Lynn finds herself plotting a complex conspiracy of examination fraud which involves international travel and extreme feats of memorisation.

The saddest part is, all of this starts as a mistaken attempt at friendship. Lynn’s first mistake was helping Grace cheat when became clear she’d never get the grades. She did this to help her friend who was worrying about being kicked out of the school play just because her maths is bad. Likewise she doesn’t want to help Pat, but doesn’t want to let Grace down and can’t deny the money is helpful. Little by little, Lynn is seduced by all the adoration she’s getting from these rich kids who wouldn’t give her a second look ordinarily but are now entirely dependent on her in their academic lives. Her finely tuned, systematising mind loves solving the puzzle of the perfect scam while her loneliness leaves her basking in her newfound popularity.

Lynn’s seduction into the world of cheating is partly born of a kind of class rage but it comes from a surprising direction. Grace, a blabbermouth, lets slip that the school charges its fees at a very uneven rate. The less able students like Grace and Pat are paying a kind of idiot tax. Not having met the academic requirements, they’ve bought their way in through paying higher fees and making donations to the school. Even Lynn’s father has payed a significant amount in “tea money” despite her scholarship. This knowledge provokes a kind of outrage in Lynn, disappointed with the school’s lack of integrity. Cheating gains an additional attraction in getting back at the “corrupt” school system, but Lynn hasn’t thought it through. She thinks this is a victimless crime – the dim rich kids get their grades and please their parents, she gets rich, everyone is happy. Lynn hasn’t considered how taking the rich kids’ money makes her an enabler of the very system she rails against in allowing them to continue using their privilege to get ahead at the expense of genuinely talented students like herself and her friend/rival Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul).

Smart as she is, Lynn is not so much of a people person and consequently it takes her quite a long time to realise she is being exploited. She’s drawn to Bank because, like her, he also comes from an impoverished background and reminds her of her father in his absentminded goodness. Lynn breaks her own heart when she realises that all her scheming has destroyed the thing she loved as Bank’s pure soul becomes corrupted by cynicism in realising it will never matter how many exams you pass, the rich kids will always have everything zipped up tight. Rather than join the rat race, there might be a better way for smart people to earn money fast by exploiting the obvious weaknesses of the elite’s spoiled children rather than expending time and energy playing by the rules.

Shot with rigorous attention to detail, Bad Genius is both tense exam room thriller and humorous teen drama which lays bare the negative effects of pressurised education and social inequality on the hopes and dreams of young people. Lynn’s passage from isolated smart kid to criminal mastermind is heartbreaking in its quietly devastating conclusion in which she realises honesty and integrity have their own value but also that the choice has always been hers and she has the power to own her own story rather than allow someone else to claim it for her.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)