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The Yorker at LIFF 31: Bad Genius

One of the great things about film festivals is the sheer variety of what gets screened. When perusing the programme for this year’s 31st Leeds International Film Festival, I happened across a listing called Bad Genius, a film about the cheating epidemic of Asian-Pacific students in US college entrance exams, which has been getting increasingly high-tech in recent years. A film about a smart girl leading the fight against culturally enforced academia? I knew I was in for a treat.

If you had any friends who were applying to medical school, a US college or a high-profile Maths or Law university course during sixth form, it’s likely you would’ve sneaked a look at the endless practice papers they worked on during free periods in preparation for their extra entrance exams. I once glanced at the UKCAT and immediately knew that there was no way I’d be able to pass a 45-mark paper like that given three hours, let alone in the less-than-a-mark-a-minute time frame given in the actual exam. The tests are so extensive and rigorous, covering such a variety of question types and topics, that you can’t have any kind of social interactions if you want to pass. Add the academic difficulty to the cultural pressures in these countries to achieve and study abroad, and it’s no wonder that students repeatedly try to cheat the system.

Bad Genius focuses on a group of Thai students as they take the STIC (SAT) exam for Boston University. We follow Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), a scholarship student to one of the top schools in Thailand. There she befriends Grace, a student who got in because her family could afford the tuition fees (and all the extras). Grace struggles with homework and tests, and Lynn is always happy to help out. When Grace’s rich boyfriend proposes Lynn help out him and some friends too, for 3000 Thai baht each per test (approximately £70), it’s too good an opportunity to miss. Living with her father, who could not afford all the extra fees on top of Lynn’s tuition without her getting the scholarship, she wants to be able to cover those costs with money used to cheat the institution. Good old fashioned payback.

It’s clear the writers had a lot of fun with the heist elements of this film. Lynn comes up with some truly innovative ways to get answers to people, including writing them on an eraser and sending it by shoe-mail to Grace, sat behind her, and tapping out classical piano motifs on her desk to indicate an answer to a large group of people. The STIC exam is the most elaborate, which inevitably means there are more chances for it to go wrong, ramping up the tension for the climax of the film.

Director Nattawut Poonpiriya translates this fun script excellently, using slow-motion and dramatic reactions common in both Asian cinema and Western heist-thrillers to mock itself and all of its inspirations. It’s balanced well with moments of genuine emotional weight, mostly down to the superb performances from the leading cast. Lynn and her father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) have a touching relationship which holds the emotional core of the film, and both actors tap into performances which can be appreciated by an audience of any language.

Bad Genius is, overall, a riot. Stylish and with rocket-pace, I could watch these teens battle the system for hours and never get bored.

Next up in our coverage of LIFF 31- You Were Never Really Here.

Bad Genius screened at Leeds International Film Festival and is now available to purchase on iTunes. Image source: Variety.com