Bad Genius (C̄hlād kems̄̒ kong) may be a movie about teenagers struggling with class divides and test scores, but director Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya steers clear of John Hughes territory, instead presenting his high school-set tale as a highly-stylized heist thriller much closer to Ocean’s 11 than Pretty in Pink. The plot revolves around morally challenged teen genius Lynn (Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying, who won the NYAFF 2017 Screen International Rising Star Award for the role) and her increasingly high-stakes attempts to make gobs of money by perpetrating academic fraud. Though her schemes at first revolve around outsmarting the teachers at her ritzy private high school, she and a motley crew of rich “clients” (as well as Bank, the “other” smartest kid in the school (played by Chanon Santinatornkul)) eventually set their sights on the biggest score of all: the SAT. We spoke to director Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya and stars Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying and Chanon Santinatornkul about cheating, portraying geniuses, and what they hope American audiences take away from their film.
First of all, did any of you ever cheat in school?
Chanon Santinatornkul: [laughs] I did pretty basic stuff like writing on an eraser or Post-It. Things like that.
Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying: Same with me.
Baz Poonpiriya: No, I never cheated. It’s not that I am a good person, but it just feels like it’s not worth it. It’s okay to not have a good score. There’s more to life than that.
Baz, one wouldn’t ordinarily think to turn a story about academic fraud into a heist film. What made you decide to go this route with the script?
Baz: I’m a film buff, and I grew up with ’70s spy movies and heist movies. So when I first heard this story, I thought about those spy films, and I tried to combine them.
Were there any specific films you were using as reference points?
Baz: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That’s the one I had in mind. All the setup, the audition, things like that.
Aokbob and Chanon, what attracted both of you to the project?
Chanon: First of all, I need to mention that there aren’t many movies in this genre in Thailand. This genre is special, so when I saw the script, I said, “I want to be in this movie.”
Aokbab: It was really the script that drew me to the audition.
Chanon: Also, the production company, GDH 559, is one of the very best in Thailand.
Aokbab, you’ve been modeling since you were fifteen. Did you consciously use any of the skills you’ve developed as a model in your performance?
Aokbab: I think I used my modeling experience to work different camera angles and think about how the character is seen.
Chanon: From my point of view, Aokbab has something about her that the main character also has. She’s a model, so she had to know how to connect to the audience, and the main character had to do the same thing with the people around her.
Baz: I think it’s her posture, her confidence. Without saying anything, just through her movement, she can tell you what she’s feeling.
Chanon and Aokbab, there are so many cliches when it comes to portraying geniuses in film and TV, but you both stayed away from those stereotypes. How did you show that you were geniuses without making a cartoon of yourselves?
Chanon: Baz would have us do workshops. We would do activities together so we can have some link to each other. We would research some, too. I have a lot of friends that resemble [my character], so it brought something I could use for the movie. I didn’t watch other movies to see how they portrayed geniuses, so I think that’s what made sure it wasn’t cliche.
Aokbab: I’ve watched a lot of movies [featuring geniuses], but I didn’t feel like I had to imitate them. I just had to use them as examples that I could use and make my own.
The complex relationship between your characters is one of the highlights of the film, as it’s mostly platonic and sometimes competitive, but there are also hints at an underlying romance. What do you think your characters really feel about each other?
Chanon: I think that I feel like we compete with each other, but as time goes by, she becomes my only friend. I think that my character quite likes her in a romantic way, but he doesn’t have the skill to tell her.
Baz, was there anything in the actors’ performances that surprised you?
Baz: Actually, yeah. Everyone surprised me. Every actor can play the character better than the script. For example, the part of Aokbab’s character’s dad (played by Thaneth Warakulnukroh), their chemistry together was way better than what I wrote in the script, which made me change the character. The dad was going to be more controlling, but after seeing his performance, I made him sadder and more powerless. That makes it more profound. We feel for him more.
For a fun film, it’s very incisive and critical of Thai society. Not just of the educational system, but also of the entire class divide. Was that always your intent with the story or did that happen as the script developed?
Baz: Kind of. At first, I’d decided that I wanted to do a fun movie. But after I did the research, I saw a lot of things that have happened in the Thai education system. I think that’s why the movie has some dimension.
Where did the cheating techniques in the movie come from? Did you do research on how people cheat on tests in real life?
Baz: Some of it is from our own experiences, like writing on the eraser. For things like printing barcodes on pencils, we never did that, so we had to use our imagination a lot.
How surprised were you when you found out your film would be screening at an American film festival?
Baz: We were very surprised because we didn’t know if people around the world would understand our society, our culture, and what it means to be a Thai teenager. It’s funny that everybody gets it.
Is there anything you hope American audiences get out of seeing this film?
Chanon: Teenagers all around the world are the same. They need someone to understand us the way we are and push us in the right direction.
Aokbab: I can’t tell you what you’ll get out of the movie, but I hope you learn from this film. You’ll find out what you take away from it on your own.
Baz: I hope the people watching have fun. Even if you don’t get anything all, I hope you have fun and be happy.