'Bad Genius' exception to Thai film rule
She cheats because she wants money, and because she believes the system has cheated her first. No politics please! The exciting Thai pop-culture news of the week was the box-office triumph of the Thai film Chalard Games Goeng (Bad Genius in English), an exam-cheating thriller packed with heart-racing set pieces in which bright students orchestrate an elaborate international cheating ring, outsmarting the system on the expense of their moral equanimity. When you're 17, perhaps that's a small price to pay.
Bad Genius made headlines mainly because it opened at No.2 in China. As of now it has made over US$23 million (over 750 million baht) in that market and, according to ComScore, which tracks box offices worldwide, the Thai film was the sixth-ranked title globally last weekend. The film was also a big hit in Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In China, there was a report of a student in Sichuan making a ramshackle shrine of the film's protagonist -- the "genius" of the title -- and call her the "Goddess of Exams". Pray at the altar of academic excellence: Superstition, communism and imported pop-culture aren't that strange bedfellows after all.
It's not entirely accurate, however, to say that this isn't about politics. Not in many years has Thailand had an international hit; the success of Bad Genius revives the never-ending dream of Thailand becoming a major exporter of pop culture -- with movies leading the charge -- and emulating the cultural hegemony of, say, Japan and South Korea, which keep producing an inexhaustible supply of television series and films to set the trend and shape the taste of fellow Asians. On the cultural front, their domination is obvious. In economic terms, pop culture represents a fair share of those countries' GDP.
Thailand still has a lot to learn, riddles to solve, dilemmas to straddle. First of all, the Thai cultural authorities have long wrestled with several thorny questions: Is cinema culture or commerce? Can it be both? How to promote the commercial prospect of Thai movies while adhering to the official idea of "Thai culture"? What if, as examples have shown, internationally recognised films do not present Thailand in a positive light? What if, to put it bluntly, a well-made, award-winning film criticises the coup, the military, or the questionable past of the country?
South Korea has risen in the food chain of global pop culture through hard work, government support, corporate creativity, and an understanding of how to push cultural content as international products -- if they can put Samsung into the hands of people everywhere, they're confident to accomplish the same with soft products. This blossoming of South Korean creativity and marketing took place, not coincidentally, at the same time as the democratisation of its politics and, after the end of a long military dictatorship. Korean filmmakers can make films on sensitive subjects, either about politics or history, on top of their proficiently produced melodrama and soap series. There's clearly a lesson to be learned there.
It also helps that the Koreans love movies. Last year more than 200 million movie tickets were sold in South Korea, compared with about 70 to 80 million in Thailand, according to unofficial statistics. Thus the startling expansion of Korean cinema in the international market is built upon its domestic strength.
To be fair, the Thai Culture Ministry and Commerce Ministry have been more industrious in promoting cinema and other contemporary contents. They try their best to reconcile the stiff, traditional bureaucratic mindset with contemporary pop products, and they've learned how to deal more effectively with the creative sector. A budget has now been set aside to subsidise small and independent films (will it be committed long term?), and the Department of Export Promotion continues to aid major film studios in their international marketing efforts.
But still, our overall cultural policy is ambiguous at best. And there's no way round it: Freedom of expression is essential in the creative process, and you know how our freedom of expression goes these days. (Earlier this month, the police banned a screening of the film Dao Khanong, which touches on the Oct 6, 1976 incident). The success of Bad Genius is worth saluting, a sign that Thai content can compete on the big stage. And yet the film is a triumph of private efforts and corporate creativity -- an exception -- and not a consequence of a systematic cultural and artistic support that would ensure its sustainable influence. Bad Genius passed the exam without cheating; we can't say the same about our larger pop-cultural programme.
Kong Rithdee is editor of Life, Bangkok Post.
Former Life Editor
Kong has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.