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WTF ASIA 122: Bad Genius (2017)

School. School. School. School itself is such a controversial subject these days. Personally, I am glad to not have to worry about that now. Also, I hate taking tests.

Available in AustraliaCanada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries. Approximately 130 minutes.

 

Breaking news. STIC, the Standardized Test for International Colleges for students who wish to apply to US universities has been hit with a cheating scandal. Investigation is still pending.

What happened?

 

Twelfth grader Rinrada Nilthep sits in an interrogation room. There is a cellphone on the table. She insists that it is not hers. Rinrada tells the interrogator to check her academic history. She is one of the top students at the prestigious Krungthep Thaweepanya School. she would have no reason to cheat on the STIC.

So why is she being interrogated?

Ninth grader Rinrada Nilthep sits in the Headmistress’s office. Her father, Pravit, is there with her. She had been a student at the school where he taught, but this school is much fancier. The Headmistress is looking over her academic record while Vit lists off some of her achievements. She is not Rinrada’s Headmistress…yet. In fact, the Headmistress has to interrupt Vit. The question is not whether the school will accept Rinrada, or Lynn, as a student, but whether Rinrada will accept the school.

Lynn hesitates, which makes her father nervous. It is not that she does not want to study here. The issue is that her father would have to pay 150,000 baht (around $4820 US if the exchange rate did not fluctuate too much since 2012) each year, which is a lot of money for them. The Headmistress argues that the cost is only 120,000. Lynn, however, is taking into account the extra travel expenses, the more expensive lunches, the school supplies, and the new uniform. Vit insists that he can afford it, but Lynn argues otherwise. The Headmistress offers to waive the tuition fees, which stuns both of them into silence. She throws in a free lunch program as well. She wants to show that the school appreciates Lynn’s academic abilities. Lynn accepts and Vit is overjoyed.

Thus, Lynn begins her Upper Secondary education at Krungthep Thaweepanya. Tenth grade starts with ID photos. Lynn has just gotten hers done when the girl behind her rushes up, attempting to fiddle with Lynn’s hair. She argues that they will have to use these IDs for the next three years, so why not look good for them? So Lynn lets the girl, Grace, adjust her hair. Grace also tells Lynn to remove her glasses, which she does reluctantly. Grace says that she looks pretty, but Lynn just rolls her eyes. After getting her photo taken a second time, she puts her glasses back on. But she will never put them on again.

So this is how Grace and Lynn first met.

Grace sits in the interrogation room. She says that it was because her ID number followed Lynn’s that they sat together for three years. But they became friends as well. Grace says that everyone knows that Lynn is smart. As for Grace…she is more of an extracurricular activities person. And…yeah…maybe not that smart.

Grace and Lynn are sitting among the shelves in the library. Grace is upset at the new rule that students need a grade point average of at least 3.25 to be in the school play. Lynn thinks that acting is harder than studying, which amuses Grace. Still, Grace says that Mr. Sophon had been tutoring her in mathematics for a week and nothing sticks. Lynn glances at the review sheet that Grace just pulled out and gives the answer to one of the questions. Even though Grace just took out the paper…and Lynn was looking at it upside-down. Grace is shocked that Lynn could solve the problem so quickly, but Lynn says that it is super easy. Grace asks Lynn to be her tutor. Lynn doesn’t want to, but Grace eventually convinces her by calling her Teacher Lynn. Lynn agrees to teach her everything on the review sheet.

Grace and Lynn are taking a mathematics midterms exam. Lynn almost immediately notices that the questions on the exam are the same ones that were on the review sheet, just in a different order. She looks around the classroom. Did other kids figure this out as well? She turns to Grace, who is one desk behind her. Despite having gone over this exact material not too long ago, she is struggling, unable to remember anything that Lynn had taught her. She is really struggling.

So, Lynn makes a decision.  She speeds through the test and, as the teacher is halfway dozing off, she writes the answer on her eraser, drops into one of her shoes, and kicks it back to Grace. Grace kicks her shoe to Lynn, and Lynn manages to distract the teacher with an inane question while Grace picks up the eraser.

Result: Grace gets a 3.87. Lynn got an easy 4, but no matter. Grace invites her to celebrate with her boyfriend Pat at his place.

Pat’s place turns out to be at the hotel that his parents own. The three of them are hanging out by the pool. Pat and Lynn don’t really know each other that well despite being in the same class, but Grace has apparently told him a lot about Lynn. Lynn is rather flattered…until Pat gets to the point: he knows that she helped Grace cheat during the midterm.

Lynn is unhappy about the secret getting out, but Pat cuts to the chase. He is an idiot. He knows that he is an idiot. But he still wants to get good grades, especially since his father had promised him a new car. He know that he cannot appeal to her kind nature or their friendship like Grace did, but he can pay her 3,000 baht per subject. And there are five other people willing to do so as well. That would net her 234,000 baht per term. Pat says that it is like getting the schools’ tea money back. What is that? Donations. Donations for being dumb. Grace had to pay 400,000 and Pat had to give 20 iMacs to the school library. Lynn argues that she got a scholarship, but Pat reminds her of her maintenance costs.

When Lynn gets home, she goes through her father’s files and finds the receipt for her student fees: 200,000 baht. And there she was months ago fretting over 150,000 a year. She also finds her father’s copy of the divorce agreement. It is a bitter reminder that yesterday was her mother’s birthday.

Lynn goes over to the piano that has not been played or tuned in a long time and plays the saddest rendition of Happy Birthday on it. Vit walks by, surprised that she is playing it; he had considered selling it to pay for a new car. Lynn asks him why he wanted to send her to this school so badly. He tells her that he wanted to give her the opportunity to get a scholarships to study overseas when she graduated. She thinks that she would have been happier at her old school. He responds by tossing a wad of paper at her head.

Lynn turns back to the piano and start playing Fur Elise…and…pauses…and starts again…an idea starts to form in her head.

Pat sits in the interrogation room. He admits to having paid Lynn…for music lessons. That is not against the law, is it?

Grace, Pat, and five other boys are at Lynn’s place. She presents them four melodies from (European) classical music that will represent A, B, C, and D. They must memorize the movements of her fingers. I am not sure why an individual finger cannot represent a letter, but I guess that this fits into the notion that (European) classical music helps the brain. Or it could just be that Lynn wants to show off and the others are too intellectually intimidated to ask. In any case, she will complete the test and, at a particular time, tap out the answers to every three questions. She will leave her clients to answer every fourth, in order to keep the teachers from getting too suspicious about stupid students suddenly getting perfect scores.

And it works. It continues to work. Grace gets to star in the school play. Pat gets his car. Lynn gets 234,000 baht. She uses some of that to buy her father a new button-down shirt, telling him that she paid for it with money from the piano lessons…and I am guessing that the piano got tuned as well. He “jokes” that a pair of new trousers would be okay. Meanwhile, Pat has been recruiting other kids in school to…uh…take piano lessons. Things are looking up.

Eleventh Grader Rinrada Nilthep is named scholarship student along with Thanaphon Viriyakul. The two of them are representing their school on an episode of the game show Teen Genius. Lynn seems bemused at the whole thing, but Thanaphon “Bank” Viriyakul is incredibly nervous.

Bank sits in the interrogation room. He admits that he studies at the same school at Lynn, but insists that they are not friends. Actually, they are rivals.

Lynn can tell that Bank is nervous to be on the Teen Genius show. She also notices the bit of noodles on his creased shirt. Did he spill it on himself while eating or cough it up while he was gagging in the bathroom? In any case, she gives him a baby wipe. She looks over and sees the prize: 5,000 From Thai Life Insurance. That is not…that much, but it is not nothing. Actually, Bank theorizes that it will be less after the 3% tax and they will have to split it. Lynn looks on the bright side: it is enough for a salmon buffet. Lynn asks if Bank will go out for dinner with her tonight if they win. Bank turns it down; he doesn’t like wasting money by eating out. Lynn laughs; he sounds just like her father. Bank does not know how to take it, so she insists that it is a good thing. She does not tell him that she was like that only a year ago: frugal, unbothered by appearances. Bank flinches as she reaches out to touch him, but she insists that they have to look good for the camera, so he allows her to fix his hair and his shirt. He may be smart, but he has to look smart as well. Okay, movie, I get it.

Bank and Lynn are in the Headmistress’s office. They won the game thanks to Bank having memorized pi to however many decimal places. Apparently, he has an extremely good memory. The Headmistress had not simply called them in to congratulate them, though. The Singapore Embassy is offering full scholarships from bachelor’s degrees to doctorates. The school has determined that, in terms of grades, behavior, and determination, only Bank and Lynn are worthy candidates to take the scholarship exam. Bad news: only one student per school can receive the scholarship. So, Bank and Lynn, formerly teammates, are now rivals. The Headmistress tries to spin this as fun, in the spirit of competition. While she gleefully glosses over the fact that she is deliberately pitting the two poor kids in school against each other, the fact is not lost on them.

Bank goes home on his on his motor scooter and puts the Teen Genius plaque on the stand honoring his late father. He walks in to see his mother cleaning clients laundry by hand. Though this is a laundry service, the washing machine broke again. Due to having no gloves, her hands are all calloused. Bank puts the rest of his stuff down and takes over the cleaning.

Lynn sits in the interrogation room. She says that she understands why she is under suspicion for cheating. But Bank as well? That is ridiculous. Bank is the most honest and hardworking people she knows apart from her father.

Banjong “Tong” Wongpoom stops Bank in the school hallway right before the test. He says that he got sick and had not studied. Can he copy off Bank? He really tried, but the piano code was too hard? Piano code? What is he talking about? Nothing, nothing. Just…Tong can pay 3,000. Bank rolls his eyes and walks off.

Bank is the first to the exam room. He observes the various students taking seats around him. He especially notices Tong taking a seat next to Lynn and looking right at her. Whatever. The test is starting. Bank goes through the exam pretty easily until question 40, which asks about the exam set number. He asks the proctor what that means and the proctor says that there are two sets of questions; just put down the number given.

 

Oh fuck.

 

Lynn and her clients look over their respective papers. Bank fills in the question easily and looks up to see Tong LEANING OVER to look at Lynn. Idiot. He finishes his exam and walks up to hand it in. He drops his papers in front of Lynn, flipping over one page where he wrote that Tong was copying her. Lynn smiles and nods. Bank goes up to the proctor and hands his paper over, and narcs on Tong. The proctor says that he will check for himself and tells Bank that he can leave. Meanwhile, there are 30 minutes left.

Lynn looks around at her clients, who subtly show her which set they have…it is a fairly even split. Since she has set one, she will start with set one. They finish and hand in their papers at the same time. As they surround the proctor, Lynn and Tong switch exams. Lynn speeds through the exam as quickly as she can. Not so easy now, is it? How the proctor does not notice that only one student is doing the test is a mystery. But she finally finishes and taps out the answers. It is taking too long. She probably regrets doing the melody code instead of just single fingers, but they get through it just in the nick of time. Easy 75,000.

Grace, Lynn, and Pat are relaxing outside when Lynn and Tong are called to the Headmistress’s office. Bank is there, accusing Tong of cheating. The proctor comes in, saying that it is impossible, as they had different sets of questions. The Headmistress is about to dismiss Lynn when she notices a bunch of extra numbers on her worksheet. The one that she might have kept to herself had the proctor not walked up and snatched all of her papers at the end of the exam. Oops. Bank turns to Lynn. He had expected Tong of cheating, but it had not occurred to him that Lynn had been helping him all along. Lynn has no explanation.

Vit is called to speak with the Headmistress. There is evidence that Lynn did the exam paper for her friends. I mean, I would not call Tong a friend, but no matter. Vit is shocked. Lynn? His Lynn? The headmistress threatens her with expulsion if she does not say why she did it. Bank runs in from…nowhere…and says that it was for the money. He tells them that Tong had tried to bribe him too. The headmistress is disappointed in Lynn. She had accepted her into her school because of her academic record, but of course that is not enough. She has to have good conduct as well. The Headmistress appeals to his academic professionalism to argue that doing someone else’s exam is still cheating and a serious violation of school rules. Since this was only the first time, the Headmistress will merely cut off the free scholarship instead of outright expelling her. Lynn, who had been silent all of this time, accepts this. Bank, who had been cowering in the doorway, asks whether Tong and Lynn could merely retake the exam. The Headmistress ignores him, reminding Lynn that school is a place for studying, not for making money. Lynn stifles a laugh. What is so funny? The Headmistress starts to scold Vit for failing to raise his daughter right and Lynn snaps.

Lynn argues that she was not the only one using this school to make money. What about the “tea money” that Vit paid? The Headmistress snaps back. It is not tea money, it is a school maintenance fee. Lynn asks how it isn’t the tuition fee. Vit says that that is enough. He begs the Headmistress to let Lynn stay; he will take care of the remaining tuition fee. The Headmistress agrees, but tells them that Lynn is banned from the Singapore scholarship. Lynn is taken aback. She turns to Bank, who lowers his head. Well, I guess that they no longer have to act as rivals for the scholarship.

Lynn is about to tear up as Vit takes her hand to leave, but she is not done yet. What does the scholarship have to do with her helping her friends? She never copied anyone else’s; all that she has achieved has been due to her own abilities. The Headmistress responds that other students have similar abilities and have not sullied themselves, such as Bank, who is cowering even more by the door. Vit and Lynn turn to leave. Lynn not-so-sincerely wishes Bank good luck with the scholarship.

Bank sits in the interrogation room. If evidence has been found, he says, then perhaps Lynn may have cheated. But he is not involved. Just because they were both top students, that does not mean that they share a personality.

Back at home, Vit looks at the financial papers. It is just has he suspected; no way would Lynn have jeopardized her place at the school for a mere 3,000 baht. It was those piano lessons. Would it not have been better, he asks, for her to actually teach her friends? The Headmistress cheated them first, Lynn retorts. Vit says that he paid willingly. So did the students, Lynn says. Vit yells at her, perhaps for the first time in a long time. There is silence. Vit decides to take the blame, for failing to raise Lynn to be a good person. How dare he ask other people to pay her tuition. He’ll sell the car…and he no longer wants the shirt that she bought him. She can forget about going abroad for anything. And she has to return the money that her friends gave her.

Grace sits in the interrogation room. Through tears, she insists that Lynn is a really good friend.

Twelfth Grader Grace opens a can of Pepsi and takes a sip of it, practicing for what I guess is a commercial audition. She has invited Lynn to the restaurant at the hotel that Pat’s parents own to make a request. Apparently, Pat’s parents have noticed his grades improving and believe that it is due to Grace’s influence. His mother considers her to be smarter than all of those famous tutors. They are planning to send him to Boston University, where his father went. Boston…I mean, it’s a solid school, I guess, but is it as prestigious as Illinois State University? That I do not know. In any case Grace should go there as well, to ensure that he does not falter academically. They will pay for all the expenses, including part of the tuition if necessary. All that is left is for Grace and Pat to pass the Standardized Test for International Colleges within this year.

Lynn says that she had already risked a lot for Grace. Grace says that she and Pat are desperate. They are willing to pay 600,000 baht. Lynn takes the literature that Grace showed her and leaves. She looks through the guidebook and takes a long look at herself in the mirror. This is impossible. This is wrong. She goes to the front desk to ask one of the receptionists to return the book to Pat. She gets a piece of paper to write an apology. She tries to give the book to the receptionist, but she is on a call. So Lynn waits. She looks around. She listens. She looks. She hears. She sees. Wait a minute.

There IS a way to help. But it will require a lot of cunning, a lot of lying, a lot of timing, a lot of resources, a lot of money, and a lot of co-conspirators…including probably that goddamn Bank.

 

 

I am sure that Thai audiences may have been primed for this movie after a cheating scandal that broke in 2016 involving codes sent to smartwatches and glasses with hidden cameras. This movie, however, is not based on that. It is more…uh…inspired by the rather alarmingly common trend of massive cheating schemes throughout Asia. It is completely fictional, and I believe even the STIC was made up for the movie.

Just like a couple people commented in regards to the smartwatch scheme, this movie has drawn some inspiration from heist films and capers. From the eraser trick to the STIC trick, every scheme is treated as a complex machine that depends on stealth and exact timing, with the whole thing at risk of falling apart at all times due to various threats. From camera angles to music to editing, the movie treats it as such, which allows what might be rather mundane tasks to be treated like accessibly nailbiting sequences. And while the director has publicly stated that he is against academic cheating, the movie does present a scenario where it can be seen as just another thing that kids do.

At the same time, this is not merely a story about cheating at tests, where the conspirators get the answers by stealing the documents or getting them off of the internet. The source is the main character herself, the bad genius. That she can easily ace the tests all on her own is the point of the movie. The movie may stack the deck by making the two scholarship kids the smartest at school, but that is just it. While certainly not all of the regular students at Krungthep Thaweepanya were bad at their studies, Bank and Lynn had to be better than them to even be considered to enroll. Because most of the regular students could afford to be less than smart, while Bank and Lynn could not. That allows for two poor kids who, through their own efforts, have been given the opportunity to attain success. Two. That means hundreds left behind. Meanwhile, scores of idle rich kids have been able to coast on laziness, with the consequences of bad grades being only inconveniences.

Not to say that Bank and Lynn do not deserve to go to a prestigious school, but there were probably other kids from Lynn’s old school who would have also benefited from being there. But as Krungthep Thaweepanya experiences a rise in grades due to Lynn and Bank attending, Lynn’s former school probably suffers from a minor brain drain, and her former classmates probably could not afford to cheat in the way that her new classmates can. Thus, the richer school, already benefiting from tutors and other resources, can pull even further ahead in grades through both legitimate and illegitimate means while her old school falls further behind. And as it seems to be being argued right now in the United Kingdom due to recent and ongoing events, the powers that be are more likely to exacerbate such inequities than to alleviate them if not constantly held to account. 

The implication here is that the supposed value placed on academic achievement is a façade to hide what is really valued, money and power. The grades are just markers of status, means to a greater reward. The school itself is part of the problem. Why allow the families of stupid kids to buy their way in? Letting in Bank and Lynn with lower fees may be nice, but they are most likely raising the academic average, while still charging them large sums to attend. And when a bunch of rich students suddenly start doing better on tests, no one bats an eye. Money both trumps grades and can be used to better one’s grades.

Regardless of whether the school administration realizes it, this is the lesson that the students receive. Of course, they did not earn their economic status. Maybe their parents did. Maybe their grandparents did. Whatever the case may be, rich does not necessarily equal smart. So, in order to get by, they will have to cheat. Perhaps they could have found another way to cheat without bribing Lynn, maybe some of them had Lori Loughlin-esqe parents who would get involved in college scams on their behalf. For the rest, though, Lynn was there for the using. There is a nagging question of whether Grace had actually been manipulating Lynn all along, gently steering this poor socially awkward nerd into giving her the answers to tests. Maybe, maybe not. But even if that is not the case, it is notable that Grace waits until after Lynn decides to help Grace cheat to introduce her to Pat. And while Pat tries to entice her with money, there is the implication that he will sell her out if she doesn’t play ball. Even if Lynn agrees, Pat still gets the better part of the deal; not only does he pass his classes, but he gets a new car as a reward; a car that probably costs significantly more than the 234,000 baht that Lynn would receive for her troubles. So, in tricking the school and his parents as well as getting more out of this than Lynn does…who is the real stupid one here and who is the genius?

And that is where the wrinkle comes in. Perhaps…the less than the academically gifted students could spent all of that time, effort, and mental energy they put into cheating into actual studying. Additionally, Grace, Pat, and the others may have other talents that are not as valued. Grace can act. Pat can…I guess finagle a beneficial deal or whatever. Regardless of how much or how little input they had in the schemes, they are still quite resourceful in doing things that people of their status may not particularly think highly of. Yet they are being set on a path on which they will inevitably fare badly.

One can predict the future. These inheritors of the land will be put in positions far beyond their competency and they will pull others (more qualified, but less fortunate) into their orbits to get bailed out and have their disastrous decisions covered up. And while Lynn and Bank may be celebrated as the poor kids who made it through the system, others who may have been slightly less smart, but still much smarter than these rich kids will be neglected when they are not being exploited. A system like this is destined to malfunction except in the field of propping up the wealthy class.

This is the world into which Lynn was thrust. She never asked to join this school and had to be cajoled into doing so. Regardless of Grace’s intentions, Lynn was not seduced into the world of cheating. It was a split second decision to help a struggling friend that ended up trapping her. But, while she is trapped, she might as well get some money out of it. Yes, her shame and guilt gnaw at her constantly, but what is she supposed to do? The right thing? Where will that  leave her? So, of course she sinks further and further until there is nowhere to go. At that point, she could not really think about the future of the country or of the class structure. Neither of those things can help her now, so sacrificing herself for their benefit will do no one any good. So she must think about herself. That is the smart thing to do, if not the wise thing to do. At least, in real life, we can see that there are Thai students not simply thinking about themselves, but directly confronting their authoritarian government and the status quo at the risk to their own safety. But, the characters in this movie see more benefit in gaming the system than changing it. Maybe the television series based on the movie that has just started airing this month will touch on that, though I have no idea.

This movie has been widely praised, though there are some who were unsatisfied by its conclusion. And…maaaaaybe it could have been handled better. Still, I feel like there were really only four directions that the story could have gone and it went a way that I did not really expect. I am fine with it. And, looking back, it was kind of telegraphed, so it makes as much sense as any other possible endings.

I have a little more trouble accepting certain casting choices in a certain segment. There is a portion of this movie that was filmed in an English-speaking country, for reasons that are a little spoiler-y. Unfortunately, the two principle English-speaking characters in those portions most definitely do not sound like natives from that country. Now, one could argue that they were not meant to be natives in the first place, given that their roles in the story do not require that. Still, it was a bit awkward making that leap. Then again, if I could listen to years and years of badly spoken Spanish in Breaking Bad, then I should be able to listen to a few minutes of differently-accented English in a movie initially meant for an audience for which English is not their first language. It’s fine.

This movie is highly entertaining and very accessible. Yeah, it may be about a smart person and have a bit of an involved plot, but it is quite the turn off your brain and just go with it movie. I quite recommend it. 

 

 

WTF ASIA 123: The Voice of Water (Japan: 2014, approx. 130 minutes)

No Wikipedia Page

Available in the United States and maybe a few other countries.

 

WTF ASIA 124: Sunflower (China: 2005, approx. 132 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available…erm…online…but you may need to find subtitles separately.