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)

Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

pop aye posterLife’s crises can take many forms but when they involve elephants it’s usually with a little more distance than in Kristen Tan’s whimsical debut, Pop Aye. A metaphorical return to source, a man entering late middle age tries to reclaim his childhood innocence by walking backwards (with an elephant) but discovers that you really can’t go home again. Man and elephant set off on a classic buddy movie road trip, enjoying a selection of encounters with fellow travellers each with a few lessons to impart.

A man in late middle age, Thana’s (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) carefully crafted life seems to be imploding all at once. The first building he designed, Gardenia Square, was an elegantly appointed modern shopping centre which seemed to perfectly reflect the growing consumerism of the ‘80s. 30 years later his futuristic design is now dated, and Gardenia Square is set for demolition to make way for the next modernist masterpiece ironically titled “Eternity”. If that weren’t depressing enough, the son of Thana’s former partner has taken over the business but has none of his father’s loyalty and is determined to sideline the office’s silly old man through pointedly underhanded ways such as deliberately telling him the wrong time for meetings and depositing the physical 3D model he spent a night at the office finishing with all the other rubbish in a now disused room.

If his work life is failing, Thana’s home life isn’t doing much better. His shopaholic wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), has little time for him and when Thana discovers her hidden vibrator, he finally realises he is entirely obsolete in every area of his life. So when he catches sight of a beautiful elephant dressed in elegant attire ready for posing for photos with foreign tourists, Thana has an immediate reaction which takes him right back to his boyhood days spent in the company of family pet, Popeye (Bong). Tracking the elephant down again and singing the cartoon’s famous theme tune to verify his identity, Thana decides to buy him (much to his wife’s horror). Seeing as you can’t really keep a giant elephant in your back garden, Thana decides his destiny is to take Popeye back to his rural village where he believes his uncle will look after him.

Undoubtedly part metaphor, Popeye represents the innocence and natural beauty of pre-modern Thailand – the very qualities Thana feels himself to have betrayed when he chose to leave home in less than ideal circumstances to pursue a “better” life in the big city. Thana got what he wanted. He became successful, wealthy, in some sense fulfilled, but now just when he should be entering a more contented phase of his life it’s all crumbling away from him and his ambivalence about the sacrifice he made as a young man is beginning to resurface. He thinks he can put something right by “rescuing” Popeye and reclaiming these qualities in the process but, as usual, nothing’s quite that simple.

Thana’s flight is as much from the modern world as it is from himself. Feeling unloved, Thana also feels eclipsed by his times, held in contempt by the younger generation whose sleek suits and obvious insincerity are a poor match for his disheveled befuddlement. This is a world in which monks accept Visa and take photos of elephants (which must surely be ten a penny) on their tablets. The city takes you in as quickly as it’ll spit you out, Thana warns a young truck driver, but his rare moment of direct emotional honesty is shrugged off as the rantings of an old man.

Despite the coldness of city life, Thana mostly meets warmhearted people on his journey through the countryside, beginning with a roadside saint who describes himself as being “like a tree” in the way he stays rooted to the spot observing the people and cars going by. Dee, noticing Thana’s blistered feet offers him his flip-flops which he won’t need anymore because he’s going to see his brother in Heaven. After all, even trees have to die someday. Grateful to the man, Thana takes Dee under his wing and vows to help him achieve his final wishes, but his intervention may have unforeseen consequences.

Thana even generates a strange bond with the policemen who arrest him for cluttering up the scenery in his nice middle-class neighbourhood which eventually leads him to a rural bar where he seems to meet a kindred spirit in Jenny – a melancholy transgender woman with a longstanding resentment of the bar’s resident “hostess”. Despite hitting it off with Jenny who seems to understand his particular pain, Thana disappoints himself by ending up in a humiliating, unsolicited situation with the bar girl but finds the equally disappointed Jenny forgiving and still willing to help a fellow traveller in need even if, as seems to be the case in much of his life, Thana has allowed himself to be bamboozled into doing something he didn’t really want to do.

At the end of his long, strange journey, Thana finds his illusions shattered, his romantic dream of his childhood home exposed as a mix of memory, nostalgia and idealism. Thana ends up where he started, only with a little more clarity and a new trend towards acceptance rather than defiance. He may think of Popeye merely as the manifestation of the innocence he sacrificed in childhood, but Popeye is his own elephant with his own ideas about his future which might or might not include Thana. Ending on a slightly upbeat note in which Thana is perhaps not as unloved as he believed himself to be, Pop Aye is charming odyssey through middle-age malaise set against the beautiful Thai landscape and told with a whimsical, melancholy humour.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)