Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya
London Film Festival review
A mesmerising work of substance-over-story, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius is a film that lives to deliver nail-biting and impeccably composed sequences of comedy and suspense. Whether or not you consider a gang of high-schoolers cheating on their college admission tests to be sufficiently exciting territory for a quasi-noirish heist thriller is irrelevant. So long as Poonpiriya is discovering intricately stress-inducing new ways of manipulating the inner workings of the exam room, Bad Genius ranks among the most fun and formally dazzling experiences you could catch in a cinema this year.
The meticulous nature of Poonpiriya’s set pieces is a natural extension of the personality of the film’s titular ‘genius’, the introverted and number-minded Lyn. An honour student who enrols in a prestigious secondary school, Lyn strikes a beguiling and slightly intimidating presence as a coldly logical figure who harbours a defiant and mischievous streak. Though Lyn’s scholarship is the only reason she can afford to attend her new school, her classes are populated by much wealthier young men and women with potentially bright futures, so long as their grades are up to par.
Naturally, a deal is made that Lyn will feed test answers to her peers in exchange for payment. It’s an arrangement that’s coloured by the somewhat dispiriting relationship between intellect and money: for Lyn, the former helps her to get the latter; for her richer classmates, the latter is a substitute for the former. That being said, it’s hard to blame Lyn’s peers too much for resorting to sneaky methods to get their marks up when the impersonal, raw data-oriented education system practically encourages the prioritisation of good grades over substantive learning. Lyn’s methods for cheating rely on the predictability and rigid structures of their standardised exams. Each answer sheet is nothing more than an anonymous set of circles that represent the possible answers to the multiple-choice questions, making Lyn’s job a simple matter of informing her clients of which answer – A, B, C or D – to select.
In its nervous depiction of Lyn’s ordeal of processing, memorising and communicating such faceless sets of data for her peers, Bad Genius shows a rare clarity in capturing the suffocating feeling of a left-brained information overload. What’s more, Lyn’s shrewd, semi-improvised plans see the objects of the exam room charged with this same anxiety, be it a shoe that’s covertly slid between tables, or a set of pencils that are literally coded with information. In lesser hands, the film’s elaborate climax would hit its jump-the-shark moment when Lyn is forced to run through corridors and subways stations to evade an examiner, yet Poonpiriya makes a seamless transition from the relatively abstract intricacy of the exams to the physical interiors of Lyn’s labyrinthine escape route.
Though Poonpiriya generally keeps the proceedings light, playful and just self-aware enough, Bad Genius sometimes takes a turn for the heavy-handed in the scenes of teen drama found in between the taut set pieces, particularly in its misjudged final minutes which feel like a betrayal of the film’s cheeky tone. More generally, these fairly conventional stretches of dialogue-based storytelling seldom attain the level of wit and artistry found whenever Lyn is busy getting a job done. So while Bad Genius offers possibly the most exquisite sequences of elaborate deception since Johnnie To’s masterful 2012 thriller, Drug War, it doesn’t quite match the efficiency by which To weaves his undercover operations together to make a film that is almost pure set piece.
But whatever faults and limitations you can find in Poonpiriya’s film, Bad Genius still feels like a downright necessary contribution to genre cinema in 2017 because it is that all too rare specimen for which artfulness and entertainment are truly one and the same. A thriller needn’t be high in stakes or heavy in tone to be worth taking seriously. All it needs is a skilled, imaginative and economical craftsman who can find endlessly riveting variation within the confines of their own distinct logic. Hollywood will shell out millions of dollars-per-blockbuster for directors who can’t even get this right and yet Poonpiriya makes it all look so easy.
Bad Genius screened as part of the London Film Festival 2017.