The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
Say what you will about Bad Education, but you cannot say that it doesn’t try to warn you about the kind of squalid little corner of reality we’re going to be exploring right off the bat.
The very first images we see are close ups of mouths in the process of grinding up a plateful of prawn, discarding the heads like so much biological refuse. Followed by the methodical, surgical dissection of a live lobster, writhing and leaking his own innards as a voice-over muses on the percentage of good and bad people in the world. Followed by a passionless backseat fuck that is interrupted by the crashing of a beer bottle thrown from the roof of an adjacent building by some pesky youths who proceed to take a group leak into the remaining empty bottle.
Han (Edison Song), Wangb (Kent Tsai), and Chang (Bernt Zhu) are recent graduates, and self-proclaimed best friends, though it’s not difficult to detect a trace of class-based resentment towards Wang, whose parents are a rung or two up the economic ladder compared to his buddies, and who is the only one headed to university in the fall. To cement their brotherhood, Chang proposes a bonding ritual wherein they all share a dark secret that they’ve never told anyone before. That he chugs the aforementioned bottle of piss beforehand will prove, in retrospect, to be the least of the poor life choices that unfold from here on out.
Bad Education is not a film of twists and turns as such, but the secrets exchanged and the fallout that ensues are still best left to the discovery of the audience. Part of the sick fun of the whole endeavor is in the way the film shifts gears and the title takes on multiple meanings accordingly. What’s meant by the ‘Bad’ part of the title is fairly clear from the outset, but up until the very end it is never fully clear who is the educator and who is being educated.
Taiwanese megastar turned debut filmmaker Kai Ko maintains a truly impressive mastery of tone that eludes filmmakers with far more experience; he proves dexterous in shifting from suspense to comedy to drama. It all flows seamlessly, or at least takes the viewer by surprise while always seeming inevitable in retrospect.
Mind you, taking the journey, which is ultimately rewarding, first involves girding yourself against the opening 20 minutes, which require no small amount of fortitude for the uninitiated. Some very dark, very disturbing things are presented to us as viewers, and while it’s not a mere exercise in shock value, it plays its cards so close to the vest that some viewers might be tempted to fold before the last hand is dealt. But it’s that very commitment to the bit that makes the film such a bracing, enjoyable experience. It shifts from psychological near-horror-to romp- to coming of age parable without invalidating anything that came before, and all flows in a shockingly seamless manner.
To that end, our leads are given a rather daunting task: to alternate between extreme states of being at the drop of a hat, without telegraphing which parts are real and which are just for show. And then when the circumstances change and they’re thrown to the wolves, to reverse course and do almost the exact opposite: trying to hide their true nature and laughably incapable of bluffing anyone. Kent Tsai probably takes first chair as the character whose journey is most pronounced, but Edison Song also makes an impression as he peels back layers of menace, cowardice, resentment, and self-loathing.
When it comes to the bad guys, the improbably named McFly Wu makes the most of his somewhat limited screen time as a debt collector who finds himself consistently baffled at how much stupider his night can get. And Leon Dai makes a powerful impression as Mr. Hsing the gangster at the end of the line; with less deft handling, his monologuing while methodically preparing sushi could come off as warmed-over Tarantino, at this point a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche. But his cool, effortless manner really sells the bit, and — for all his heavily signified malevolence — he somehow winds up being the moral authority, the only one with the sense of self to be in a position to teach these three idiots the lesson they’ve been trying to avoid all night long.
The Bad Educator, if you will.
(I wouldn’t, personally; but you do you.)
But without question, the performer who deserves the award for Best In Show is the absolutely hilarious Chang Ning, billed only as Drunk Lady. The details of how she gets involved with the errant youths are best left unrevealed. Suffice it to say Ning takes a character that could (and most likely does) read wildly problematic on the page, and infuses them with a fierce and loopy kind of full-force commitment that, against all odds, make you laugh when the proper reaction is more likely outrage.
The edge that Bad Education dances on is, to a certain line of thinking, a merit in and of itself; there are filmmakers who dream of being able to get away with what casually gets tossed off here. But it succeeds where most of them fail, which is due to a very simple reason: for all the trappings of misanthropy and nihilism that the opening seems to gesture towards, there is a genuine emotional core here. It isn’t grotesquerie for the mere sake of it, but a mercurial, hard to pin down piece of genuine entertainment gesturing towards a larger point of responsibility, brotherhood, and class resentment. The emotional core at the heart of the piece is entirely real, and, in fact, entirely relatable, even if the events in question are something else entirely.