Look! It Moves! At The NYAFF's Opening Night – Reviewing Bad Genius
Bad Genius is the opening movie for this year's New York Asian Film Festival. It's a high school heist thriller from Thailand that's as slick as anything from Hollywood.
As I write, the tickets are already sold out, the movie having come across the ocean with a lot of buzz preceding it. It was a hit in Thailand, a milestone that declares how different and sophisticated Thai Cinema is becoming. Their viewing tastes finally moving beyond dreamy spiritual arthouse movies adored by international film festivals, action thrillers, romantic comedies and increasingly run-of-the-mill supernatural horror movies.
What sets Bad Genius apart is that it's a high school heist thriller with dollops of social commentary about class tensions, competition, peer pressure and transgression that treats teenage life as something every bit as intense as any adult crime thriller. Lynn, a straight-A student raised by a struggling widowed father, is accepted into an elite school on a scholarship with her ambivalence about the whole educational and social system already in full swing. When her best friend Grace begs her help in cheating so she can pass the tests that Lynn finds a breeze, she begins a slippery slope into become a kind of criminal mastermind of cheating. More and more rich kids, at the recommendation of Grace's rich, lazy and academically inept boyfriend Pat, pay Lynn to provide them with answers to test scores live during tests. For Lynn, it's not really about the money, it's the rebellion against a system she considers unfair, the power and the satisfaction she gains from literally being the smartest person in the room, thinking up elaborate systems to pass her answers to the exclusive club of recipients live during the tests under the teachers' noses. When her scheme is exposed, she loses her scholarship, and that doesn't even stop her. With Grace and Pat under pressure from their parents to pass the STIC tests in order to qualify for Ivy League schools in the US, Lynn hatches an even more ambitious plot to cheat and get them and an even bigger client list of paying rich kids the answers, a plot as elaborate as the most complex casino heist you can devise, that can undermine the integrity of the whole international US university entrance exam system.
Director Nattawut Poonpiriya directs the movie in widescreen to give the story the scope of an epic crime thriller, and the story wouldn't have worked without newcomer Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, who plays Lynn with the steely ruthlessness of a tough noir antiheroine who just happens to be an angry high school straight-A student who's out to stick it to the system. Her performance is so accomplished that the festival is giving her the Screen International Rising Star Asia award on the night of the movie's premiere at the festival. Despite being about high school students and their anxieties and worries, this is one of the smartest thrillers of the year, disguised as a teen morality tale. It wouldn't be hard to imagine Hollywood remaking it, but would it keep the vitality and verve of the original? There's already something unique about Bad Genius, and that's the star and the portrayal of high school pressures as a noirish moral battleground.
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