This review is way overdue, after seeing a movie recommendation made by M.Gin.
And boy howdy am I glad I listened to her suggestion. ‘Bad Genius’, known in Thai as Chalard Games Geong is an incredible film, inspired by true events, that went on to become Thailand’s highest grossing film of 2017 and gave rise to model-turned actor Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying. Oh and yes, for the entirety of this post I will only be copy-pasting that name.
‘Bad Genius’ is about Lynn, a young genius high schooler who gets accepted into a prestigious Thai school. Timid and studious at first, Lynn befriends the much more outgoing but academically challenged Grace. Lynn tries to help her friend with private tutoring lessons, but when all else fails, she comes up with an ingenious way for the two to cheat and share answers during a crucial test. After Grace tells her lavishly rich boyfriend Pat of their success, he offers Lynn an irresistible payment to help him, Grace, and his friends successfully cheat on their exams in increasingly elaborate and intricate ways. When she realizes that she could be doing bad for millions versus doing good for nothing, Lynn embarks on a cheating heist of international proportions with Grace and Pat. But to do so would require the help of another equally brilliant but straight-laced student, Bank. Success would mean financial and academic security but regardless of the outcome, the cost to their futures still remains to be seen.
There’s an incredible amount of style and finesse to this movie, blending many different film genres to create a movie that’s part bank-heist and part social commentary. Most striking to me is how ‘Bad Genius’ sets cheating as a necessary evil versus class and social inequality but also as the tainted fruit of misguided friendship.
In the first sense, it strikes a personal and professional tone from my time as a teacher and someone who still cares profoundly about education. I know prestigious schools like the setting in ‘Bad Genius’ because I went to one similar to it in high school. My high school has consistently been in the top rankings in the country, garnering attention for the many academic achievements of its students. It handpicks its student population based on a series of tests and interviews, with a very limited allocation reserved only for the top percentage of students in each district. But once you get in I mean…what happens in these schools? Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting in. You do your work, pay your dues, get in, get that extra blip on your resume, and you’re set after graduation. But what makes a school truly exemplary is not in how good the students are when they get in, but how much better they are after they leave. Some of these schools that are so reputation based forget their responsibility to actually elevate their students, and instead expect them to rise on their own. It leaves the truly naturally gifted to simply continue on unfettered but also unchallenged, and it completely abandons those who possess the potential but require the nurturing.
At the same time, a major focus of the story is the stark contrast in income and class. Lynn and Bank are both academically rich students, but Lynn lives with her father, a simple teacher earning a modest income, and Bank has to balance school work with helping his struggling family’s meager laundry business, sometimes having to wash the clothes himself by hand when their old and outdated equipment breaks down frequently. Both are barely able to attend the school thanks to generous academic scholarships, which they must continually compete against each other and other schools for. Meanwhile Pat and Grace live lives of opulence and decadence, comfortable knowing their successes are almost guaranteed by the pedigree of their families. Academics isn’t so much a matter of success but of stature: Pat’s parents want him to attend the same elite American university his father attended, and Grace is expected to follow along. When some have so little, and others have so much, and those with few realize they possess something those with plenty actually want, cheating becomes a financial transaction. Almost a profession, finding a way to make money off of what one is good at. And isn’t that supposed to be the goal?
I think Lynn and Grace could have truly been great friends. I think Lynn’s natural academic ability and her caring nature could have made her a great teacher, finding unique and personal ways to reach even struggling students, like Grace. On the other hand I feel Grace, with her warm and open nature, could coax the confidence and adventure out of Lynn. I believe the nature of their relationship started out with the purest of intentions, and they made an honest effort to do honest work, trading each other’s greatest strengths to help one another. But friends don’t always know what’s best for each other. They might see into each other and see what they want, but friends might not have the maturity, the restraint, patience, or understanding to know what they need. In the heat of the moment, with the pressure of a critical test deciding whether or not Grace could act in the school play, her true calling, Lynn reacted in any way a caring friend would. She helped her. Just, not in the way she needed. The way she wanted. And who among us hasn’t compromised a bit to help a friend in need? Or isn’t guilty of greasing a friendship for some benefit sometimes? It’s what happens afterwards that determines the true nature and health of the friendship. Can Lynn realize she is hurting more than helping her friend? Is Grace able to see that she is using her friend, and in doing so losing her more and more with each exam? It’s a dynamic of the movie that culminates in a very open and authentic ending.
Honestly, there’s very little not to enjoy about this movie. It’s a thrill, it’s dramatic, it’s incredibly sleek and smooth. My biggest gripe is actually with the community of movie fans ruining one of my favorite aspects of the film. ‘Bad Genius’ is not a love story. Not all stories have to be love stories. They don’t even have to have any love in it. In fact I’m pretty sure if you were to count them, most stories aren’t love stories. There are a few moments where Lynn and Bank seem to gravitate towards each other. The director of the film has even gone on to comment that the chemistry of the two characters was unplanned but had become an excellent element to play on. But to any objective viewer, it becomes very clear that while they may at times seem to get so close as to almost touch, they inhabit completely different worlds, revolving around completely different stars. And believe it or not, that’s okay. In fact, with movies and books more often than not forcing unbelievable or untenable love stories into their midst, I’m glad in the game of ‘will they/won’t they’ ‘Bad Genius’ was smart enough to say ‘no they won’t’. They may have started out as similar stars, but the events of the film change their characters in pronounced ways, and the movie respects their growth, rather than slapping them back to the beginning like a rubber band brought back to snap at our wrists. I’m tired of reading so many fan reactions and reviews wishing and hoping the two end up together, or that in the sequel they become a pair. The story arc of these two characters is rich and lavish enough to appreciate without adding this element. HEY ‘MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US’, YOU COULD LEARN A LESSON OR TWO FROM THIS.
There’s a lot to love about ‘Bad Genius’. Not the least of which is that it has given birth to a rising star-soon-to-be-legend in its main actress, (copy-paste) Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying. Her incredible performance in ‘Bad Genius’ (her first one ever) has even earned her the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival Awards. (By the way, past Rising Stars have included the Philippines’s own Teri Malvar.) She does an incredible job expressing care, concern, confidence, and in intense moments, guilt. I can’t wait for her future projects, and I hope with the incredible success of ‘Bad Genius’ I see her in many more films. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely stunning. Why yes, I did in fact immediately follow her on Instagram after watching the movie. No, that’s not at all strange.
I hope you have a chance to find this movie online. I won’t even ask how you found it or where you saw it, because I just want you to watch and enjoy. But if you can’t, here’s a great clip from an old Japanese movie that shows you just how clever and ingenious we Asians can get when it comes to cheating.