Bad Genius makes me feel like the Thai film industry just leveled up. I’ve watched a lot of Thai movies. There’s a ton of great action even beyond the filmography of Tony Jaa (stuff like Dynamite Warriors and Power Kids), plenty of creepy or gross-out horror, and an interesting art house undercurrent with movies like Tears of the Black Tiger and, of course, the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. But by and large, when it comes to mainstream fare, Thai cinema has never reached the level that South Korea or even China routinely demonstrates these days. Bad Genius could change all that – it’s the first time I’ve thought Thailand could really hold its own with Hollywood.
Bad Genius tells the story of student prodigy Lynn (Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying). Lynn is poor but her academics get her into a fancy private school. Lynn falls in with a wealthy crowd, and eventually they develop a symbiotic relationship – she helps them cheat, they pay her handsomely for it. There are setbacks, but ultimately the film builds towards a grand scheme – cheating their way past the international examination for U.S. universities and making a small fortune while doing it.
The subject matter is not all that original, but where Bad Genius succeeds is in mixing the conventions of the high school “fish out of water” drama and the heist flick. Every trope of the latter is present, from the one last big job to the elaborate planning to the last minute kinks and unexpected problems. Everything is treated in deadly earnest – even though the test proctors aren’t armed guards, the choreography, editing and music treats them like deadly threats. And for most of the movie, second-time director Nattawut Poonpiriya executes the premise flawlessly. This is not an arch, mannered take on the material, like Rian Johnson’s Brick, but rather is played completely straight, and well.
Bad Genius does fall down a bit in the finale, which undercuts the premise by going a little too Hays Code. But the quality is top notch. This is a movie that should have the international film scene sitting up and taking notice of a new competitor. I will await the inevitable US remake.
3 out of 4 stars (Very good). Bad Genius is playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on June 30, tonight.