The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival is underway, and we at ComicsVerse will be there to share all our favorites from the fest.

Two films from Taiwan and Thailand, respectively, take traditional crime narratives and turn them inside out. In BAD GENIUS, a heist movie is transitioned into the high stakes world of standardized testing. THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER, on the other hand, is one part coming-of-age, one part aging gangster yarn, all heartfelt sincerity. Both of these movies use the conventions of crime thrillers to tell moving, human stories.

BAD GENIUS (4 1/2 out of 5 Stars)

There are few things in education as dehumanizing as standardized tests. Students are herded like cattle and forced to fill in bubble after tedious bubble. Schools then use these scores to determine the future of students, nuance be damned. Students are not seen as people but as data points. They become numbers on a spreadsheet to be analyzed and categorized as needed. Director Nattawut Pooniriya’s tight thriller BAD GENIUS manages to tell a nail-biting heist style story while criticizing the test-taking culture that has become a blight on education.

The “bad genius” of the title is Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), who is a shy, brilliant high schooler. Her father barely manages to pay the exorbitant tuition prices to give her the best education possible. In spite of her scholarships, her father is still paying hundreds of thousands in “maintenance fees” to keep Lynn in school. It’s this crippling debt that leads Lynn into a money-making scheme to sell answers for the rigorous school exams to her fellow classmates.

At the heart of the film is the constant battle between intelligence and wealth. Lynn and her fellow classmate Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul) are both brilliant but come from destitute economic circumstances. On the other side of things, the students Lynn helps to cheat on the exam have no intellectual ambitions. However, their wealth throws open doors of education to them. Pooniriya highlights the injustice of education systems worldwide. Brains aren’t enough for an education at higher institutions, but money will give you access to anything you can imagine.

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Lynn’s transformation into a test-taking Robin Hood (stealing answers from the test to give to the intellectually poor) fits in with the great anti-heroes of shows like BREAKING BAD. Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn with a quiet confidence. She commands the attention of her scenes and pulls off her plans with the smoothness of Danny Ocean. There’s never a doubt that she is as brilliant as the film purports her to be, and the script follows suit. One of the challenging things about writing genius characters is creating scenarios where their genius can flourish. The script of the film contains brilliant plans to outsmart the test, including a sequence where Lynn taps out piano melodies on her desk to represent different letters of the test.

The film also features a pair of fantastic performances from Eisaya Hosuwan as Grace and Teeradon Supapunpinyo as Pat. Grace and Pat are Lynn’s first customers who help the cheating venture to grow. Hosuwan and Supapunpinyo inject them with real humanity, keeping the characters from becoming rich kid stereotypes. They’re likable and funny, but you’re never sure if they truly care about Lynn as more than a tool for success. It’s a layered performance made all the more impressive from such young actors.

There’s also Bank, who acts as Lynn’s foil throughout the film. Santinatornkul makes Bank incredibly sympathetic even when he stands in opposition to Lynn. Bank becomes the soul of the film at times. He comes from similar circumstances as Lynn. However, he desperately tries to keep himself on the morally righteous path. Lynn’s transformation into a “bad genius” is empowering in the way she takes control of her life. By contrast, Bank’s change is tragic because he is coerced into becoming an accomplice.

CLICK: TEN YEARS gives a satirical look at Hong Kong’s potential future. Check out our review!

A film mainly focused on students taking a test sounds like it would be visually dull, but Poonirya’s direction turns even the humdrum activity of test taking into an intense scenario. Lynn’s first foray into cheating is simple: she writes answers on an eraser that she passes to Grace. However, Poonirya films this scene with the same intensity of a character disarming a bomb. Poonirya manages to project the anxious guilt that the characters feel onto the audience. The editing winds the audience like a Swiss watch. You may not associate test taking with “white knuckle thrillers,” but after this film, you will.

That feeling of dread supports the subtle satire of BAD GENIUS. It’s a film that questions why we drive our brilliant students to desperation with competitive scholarships and astronomical tuition costs. Do we really create a better future by pitting the best and brightest against one another? BAD GENIUS makes it clear that bubbles on paper cannot truly measure the value of a student.

THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER (4 out of 5 stars)

We tend to like our anti-heroes with a bit of angst. The Tony Sopranos or the Don Drapers of the world are men with dark secrets that fester inside them like ulcers. These men keep their private lives to themselves, hiding truths from their families and loved ones. Dropping the pretense of secrecy is part of what makes Chen Mei-Juin’s film THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER so unique. The gangster of the title is a crook, but he isn’t guilt-ridden; it’s just his job. That disarming simplicity gives the film a father-daughter relationship with beautiful, heart-warming honesty.

The gangster’s daughter of the title is Shaowu (Ally Chiu), a teenage girl living on the rural Kinmen Island. After her mother’s death, she reunites with her estranged father Keigo (Jack Kao). Typically, this is the point in the narrative where the clueless kid reunites with the parent until they uncover their dark secret. The difference here is that Shaowu is fully aware of her father’s illicit career. His career fascinates her rather than repels her and Shaowu tries to emulate her father’s tough gangster persona. To get mafia-style retribution, she dumps a bucket of cow manure on the local bully.

She then moves to the city to live with her father. Chen’s camera creates a beautiful contrast between the natural world of Kinmen Island to the urban sprawl of Taipei. The contrast gives the audience a hint of the new world Shaowu is stepping into.

Chen’s portrayal of gangster culture in this film is reminiscent of the honor-bound crooks of classic American films. Keigo is a friendly, benevolent figure in his community. It’s easy to see why Shaowu wants to emulate him so much. The movie succeeds in part because of the well-developed relationship between Shaowu and Keigo. Kao and Chiu have a believable chemistry as father and daughter. They carry themselves through dramatic scenes with and without dialogue incredibly well. These two characters are both believable and incredibly likable. You want to see them find happiness despite Keigo’s illegal activity eclipsing their future.

CLICK: A pair of powerful historical dramas from Lee Joon-ik give insight into fascinating events

Part of what makes THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER so affecting is the way it flips the typical gangster film narrative. There is a subplot about Keigo’s crew navigating a rocky relationship with a corrupt cop. Typically this subplot would be the focus of the entire crime drama, but instead, it takes a back seat to the father-daughter drama. While this makes the story of the father-daughter relationship stronger, the subplot feels ultimately meaningless until the end. However, Shaowu’s relationship with her father is powerful enough to drive the plot. She wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, but her father wants to drive her from the life of sin he has built for himself. That push and pull drives the heart of the conflict.

The blend of coming-of-age drama and crime story builds a refreshing take on a traditional story. Keigo must grapple with escaping the life of a gangster while trying to raise his daughter. THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER even upends typical gender roles. These types of films typically focus on the relationship between father and son (see ROAD TO PERDITION). In flipping the typical structure, Chen’s narrative highlights a powerful truth: we are products of our parents, regardless of our gender. Shaowu tries to build the persona of the tough and intimidating gangster, the same persona that her father has come to resent and reject.

Chen has crafted a mature version of the anti-hero archetype in Keigo: a man who recognizes his sins but doesn’t try to hide them. Chen’s story may revolve around a gangster and his progeny, but it is one of the most relatable stories of parent-child strife I’ve ever seen. THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER is a beautiful meditation on how we are molded, for better or worse, by the generations that came before us.

Check out the rest of ComicsVerse’s coverage of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival!
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