When Thai movie Bad Genius finished a strong second in Chinese box-office rankings on its opening weekend, industry commen­tators clamoured to decipher the signi­ficance. Now the highest-grossing Thai release ever in China, the exam-scam caper has been a triumph for distributor Hengye Pictures.

The company pulled off a marketing campaign as taut and precise as the film’s school-hall schemes. Exhibitors and heavy­weight bloggers were invited to exclusive previews, while full-time students attended sneak previews free of charge – gestures that generated significant buzz in the run-up to the film’s release on, October 13.

Some see the success of Bad Genius as proof that flat-fee imports have become as lucrative for Chinese film distributors as the Hollywood block­busters that are unspooling as so-called shared-revenue titles. According to showbiz news portal Yule Zibenlun, Bad Genius would yield a profit of at least 70 million yuan (US$10.5 million) for Hengye against an out­lay of 3.3 million yuan for the Chinese rights.

Beyond industry chatter about promo­tional strategies and profit margins, there is a more pressing question about a film that, according to audience research portal Taopiaopiao, relied heavily on the 16-24 age group. Why did this notoriously fickle and star-crazed demographic warm to a Thai film devoid of a love story, recog­nis­able stars or cosmopolitan glamour?

Film review: Bad Genius – exam cheating meets heist caper in thrilling Thai crowd-pleaser

Of course, Bad Genius offers a heavy dose of fantastical, adrenaline-fuelled thrills – the kind of entertainment that youngsters consider value for money. But the film also works because it is grounded in an exam-obsessed reality that chimes with China’s own, but has rarely been depicted in Chinese films.

Despite being part of most Chinese teenagers’ rite of passage, exams (ranging from small in-class tests to the gaokao, the feared university-entrance assess­ment) have never been considered appeal­ing fodder for high-school films, a genre anchored mostly by nostalgia and romance.

The closest a Chinese teen film has come to addressing the subject is Liu Jie’s Young Style (2013), which plays up the anxiety surrounding the gaokao to comical and melodramatic effect. Revolving around a teenager’s relationships as he prepares for his second stab at the gaokao, it’s more a comedy about youthful dreams than about the gritty process that facilitates or under­mines them.

Bad Genius is all about that process, its protagonists beating the system with ever more auda­cious schemes. One can easily understand why young Chinese viewers have rallied to Thai characters who cheat the state-backed machine. The film provides release, perhaps, for all the pent-up angst felt by exam-takers past and present.

Bad Genius becomes highest-grossing Thai film in Hong Kong box office history

And Bad Genius hints at the dark side of a biased system. The story is about two financially insolvent protagonists who risk their futures for clueless, rich brats. Director Nattawut Poonpiriya has delivered a thinly veiled condemnation of the ram­pant inequality that exists between social classes in contemporary Thailand.

This echoes the situation in China, and Nattawut’s criticism of Thailand’s exam-obsessed education system is equally applicable to China’s. The gaokao, for example, has been criticised for dis­criminating against poor and provincial students who contend with a smaller university admission quota than their more well-off, cosmopolitan counter­parts. Such social problems in China rarely receive an airing on screen.

Director Zhou Hao’s Senior Year (2005) is one of few examples of a filmmaker challenging the gaokaosystem and the oppressive social values it enshrines. Set among students preparing for the exam at a school in Fujian province, the documentary reveals how an inhuman system trauma­tises young minds – in this case, children seeking a way out of rural poverty.

Gaokao: how one exam can set the course of a student’s life in China

Senior Year was critically acclaimed, winning a best documentary award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and screening at prestigious events such as the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

Though the film was made with Chinese money, the response to it in China was more muted, the official narrative being that the gaokao provides a level playing field on which students from all backgrounds can strive for a better future.

That’s the case, at least, in China Central Television’s epic six-part docu­mentary Gaokao (2015). Employing interviews with migrant students, urban parents and conscientious headmasters, the series is described by the state broadcaster as a record of how “ideals move forward with struggles and passion, and maturity comes through one’s choice and confusion”.

China’s rigid college entrance exam is failing the tests of equality and diversity

Such optimism contributed to the upbeat commemoration this summer of the 40th anniversary of resumption of the gaokao – an historical milestone that also marked the end of the Cultural Revolution and revival of China’s ruined education system.

According to a Xinhua news report, the gaokao “launched an era of dreams, brightening China’s future”.

It would be interesting to know whether Bad Genius fans agree.