Bad Genius (Chalard games goeng)

Thailand (2017) Dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya

Cheaters never prosper. Whether fiddling the books, taking drugs in sports, or coughing at the right answers on a TV quiz, the plan always falls apart in the end and the culprits are caught. Yet the quest to achieve goals with the least amount of effort continues.

Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a straight A student and exceptionally bright but her teacher father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) can’t afford to send her to the exclusive high school with a track record of its students going on to overseas colleges. Fortunately, Lynn is offered a scholarship and she is accepted, making her first friend in perky but not very bright Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan).     

Grace want to act in the school play but her grades are lacking, so Lynn helps her pass an exam by giving her the answers. Grace then tells her rich boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) about Lynn’s genius and he offers to pay her to help him and his pals with their exams. Needing the money, Lynn agrees, devising a series of daring schemes that will eventually span international waters.

A heist film in tone and execution despite the unusual endgame, Bad Genius is based on the real events of cheating in the SAT exams in China. Thai director Nattawut Poonpiriya takes this premise to what might be its logical/greediest conclusion, which later spawned a TV series. But this is not just a morality play to keep smart students on the straight and narrow, it is also a critique on social inequality in Thailand and the arrogance of the rich buying their way in life while the poor work hard for nothing.

Poonpiriya opens his film apparently at the end of the story with Lynn being questioned about the exam scam; I say “apparently”, as it seems odd to start a tale like this, with such a potent moral point to make, near the end. To ruin it off the bat by showing us the protagonists didn’t get away with it undermines the lessons being inculcated, but as we learn there are is more to come, as corruption runs both ways and nobody is immune.

Despite not fitting in with the rich kids, Lynn and Grace get along well enough that the first bit of cheating was for friendship. The plan is clever for an impromptu bit of deceit, illustrating the power of Lynn’s calculating brain. Under any other circumstance, we know Lynn would not compromise herself again but Pat’s offer of money which would take the burden off her father seemed like a sweet deal.

With a whole group now on board, Lynn has to expand her ideas, concocting a brilliant plan involving playing the piano. I would explain further but it needs to be seen to understand fully. However, come exam day nobody notices there are two different question sheets – Lynn has sheet 1, half of the others have sheet 2. Contrived? Maybe, but it is handled wonderfully by Poonpiriya and despite the dishonesty involved, turns this into a scenario where we are on tenterhooks, willing for the plan to work.

However, nobody figures on another poor kid at school with big brains, Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul). Supporting his mother in their tiny launderette, Bank wants to better himself and identifies with Lynn through their shared background, but his honesty is implacable and drops Lynn in it, costing her the chance to study in Singapore.

So, we should hate Bank right? He is certainly set up as the nerdy creep full of himself, yet he only did it to punish the lazy rich kid and save Lynn from ruining her future. How ironic is it that when Lynn comes up with the mother of all plans to make millions from students looking for international study, she needs Bank to help pull it off?

Once again, the plan needs to be seen to appreciate in all its ridiculous and audacious glory yet, you know someone, somewhere will have thought it up for themselves sooner or later. And just like that daring break-in at a mansion or bank vault, the execution needs to be flawless and Poonpiriya wrings every last drop of nervous tension out of the situation even before they hit a nasty road bump. 

More twists are to come in the final act, when this turns into a character study of the teen tricksters, flipping the morality and corruptibility caused by greed on its head, proving that even if you get your fingers burned some people like the smell of burning flesh. Money can’t buy brains but it does afford arrogance, and as long as there is a fall guy, this victimless crime as it is perceived to be, is impugn to moral censuring.

It shouldn’t work but Poonpiriya confounds us all with this taut thriller, which is what it turns into when the pressure is on, and a cleverly constructed one too. This is in part to the fact the characters of Lynn and Bank have a conscience – sort of – and are fighting back against a system of snobbery, unaware of the irony that they are feeding that very system with their brains in trying to get their share of its benefits.

Employing dreamy visuals and tight editing, the nerve wracking suspense generated is amazing given the premise is filling in answers on a multiple choice exam paper, but it ranks alongside any horror scare, or high speed car chase in terms of edge of the seat tension. The other key ingredient is the cast, headed by former fashion model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying in her first acting role – her lanky frame and stoic face is perfect for conveying Lynn’s changes from uptight academic to criminal mastermind.

Bad Genius is a title that says it all yet delivers so much more in showing us hubris can’t be reconciled with money, and ironically for a film where the criminal acts are indeed a work of genius, brains are best used for good.