Friday, 6 October 2017

BFI LFF 2017: BAD GENIUS - Dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya

Now here’s that rarest of things, a film you never knew you wanted: a high-school exam heist thriller. Whilst Hollywood faces continuous accusations of lacking ideas, Thailand has delivered Bad Genius: an inventive and thrilling caper that has already wowed audiences on home soil and across much of southeast Asia.

Keen to settle in quickly at her new school, Lynn (newcomer Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) begins to tutor her new friend Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan). Tutoring quickly turns to cheating and as Grace’s grades improve, more of Lynn’s classmates want her to provide the answers to their exams, and they’re willing to pay good money for her help.

Bad Genius strips the tried and tested heist movie down to its core framework of elaborate setups, nerve wracking tension and unforeseen challenges. Director Nattawut Poonpiriya – along with co-writers Tanida Hantaweewatana and Vasudhorn Piyaromna – build up story with enough twists and turns to land at the trickier end of Ethan Hunt’s impossible mission scale. It gets one slightly too convenient contrivance, but you’ll never feel cheated by any of the developments.

Just like all good heist movies present a way for the audience to sympathise with thieves and crooks, Bad Genius establishes some important context early on to keep us just on the side of these cheats and con artists. Whilst Lynn may be exploiting the divide between the knowledgeable and the unintelligent, it’s the gulf in wealth that gradually becomes more prevalent during the film. The perceptive commentary on how access to educational opportunities and affluence can often go hand in hand is never sanctimonious, but it’s impossible to miss.

The focus on a central quartet works well with clearly defined dynamics between different pairings. Lynn and Bank (Chanon Santinantortnkul) are both fiercely intelligent whilst Grace and her boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) know how to manipulate people by respectively appealing to their emotions and their wallets. Refreshingly neither Lynn and Bank are presented as stereotypical nerds, they’re just intelligent people.

A deft piece of narrative misdirection shakes up the situation to ensure we can’t be sure of how all of the pieces will fall into place. Some of the flashier filmmaking flourishes begin wear a little thin after a while and the music flit between being integral and invasive.

Bad Genius has universality for anyone who’s sat for hours at a time scribbling down answers in an exam hall (or anything tangentially connected to the answers), but it’s the insightful cultural specificity that makes the story come to life and it’s also why any inevitable English language remake will have its work cut out to match this inventive original.

Bad Genius screens at the 61st BFI London Film Festival.
Click HERE for screening and ticket details.

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