“Arnold Is a Model Student,” Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan’s debut feature – premiering in Locarno’s Cineasti del presente section over the weekend – is a lighthearted satire highlighting Thailand’s recent Bad Student movement and authoritarianism in the country’s schools.
The film centres around the titular Arnold, a gold medal Mathematics Olympiad student, whose studies abroad have earnt his model student status in the eyes of his school administrators.
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An international co-production between Thailand, the Netherlands, Singapore, Germany and France, “Arnold” international sales rights are handed by Square Eyes.
The film has also had its eight-year journey impacted by filming challenges relating to the pandemic, but its story also evolved in response to contemporary political events in Thailand.
“The Bad Student movement came in 2020 and it affected the script a lot,” Prapapan reflects, “it was a perfect match.” Objecting to disciplinary methods such as policing hair, dress codes and physical punishment including caning, the movement published a pamphlet about surviving the school system. Pages of this guide inspire the chapter headings of Prapapan’s film. “What we teach in school is some kind of propaganda,” notes the filmmaker.
The Bad Student protests have created a necessary discourse in Thailand that has affected older generations who received the same treatment during their time at school. Prapapan’s decision to combine the impact of the movement with his own experiences of school seeks to highlight the historical scope of these issues. “It’s a bit out of the box for the Thai film industry…” lead actor Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg says of the film, “not many artists dare to touch this topic.” Real news clips alternate in the film with viral videos of student protests and corporal punishment to affirm the need for meaningful change.
At first, Arnold is conveyed as a conventional slacker, but Prapapan reveals how his drift through life is a consequence of parent-teacher bribery and institutional dysfunction. These corruptions intertwine with the plights of the Bad Student movement, which Arnold struggles to engage with out of fear of losing his promised future. Ultimately, the students afforded less privilege – predominantly young women – lead the school’s protest movement.
Arnold is lead astray by Mr. Bee (Winyu Wongsurawat) who inducts him into an exam cheating racket that affords students entry to a military academy. Dautzenberg himself was once a student of a military reserve school. “Growing up, I was pissed off because many of my friends supported the military,” adds Prapapan, “Why do we still think the army will get rid of corruption?”
Much of the film is a reflection on things that Prapapan observed growing up. The character of Mrs. Wanee (Niramon Busapavanich) – initially introduced as a comedic foil – comes complete with a self-worshipping informative video based directly on real Ministry of Culture productions. “It was all already there,” he says, “we just copied it, even the music.”
Prapapan’s latest presence at Locarno follows screenings of two of his short films in 2019 – “Dossier of the Dossier” and “Friend with Benefits, Without Benefits” – and his attendance of the festival’s Filmmakers Academy a few years ago.
His earlier shorts have been a staple of film festivals’ shorts programs globally and the same tone translates to “Arnold is a Model Student,” primarily in how the school is made into a background character. Students practise flute, check their phones and learn baton routines in isometric and widely framed shots that veer down the corridors and communal spaces. These playful vignettes paint a familiar and lively, shared experience of school life.
Further festival appearances for “Arnold….” are expected to be announced shortly.
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