To understand Girl From Nowhere – the Netflix sensation whose second season has topped charts across Asia since its May 7 release – you must first understand Thailand.
Or at least you have to understand Thailand in 2020, the year marked by youth-led street protests and the Bad Students movement – the year when schoolchildren began questioning what had been once unquestionable, and when they marched, in uniform, to the Ministry of Education to demand the resignation of its conservative minister.
Girl From Nowhere first premiered in 2018, before the protests flared up. But the new season hitches 2020’s anti-establishment, anti-Boomer ride, borrowing from Junji Ito’s horror manga Tomie and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker while dressing its narrative of subversion in the lurid guise of revenge fantasy. Grislier than the first, the eight-part season 2 has the diabolical teenager Nanno (Chicha Amatayakul) show up at a new school in each episode, where she proceeds to raise hell against fellow students, tyrannical teachers, horny womanisers, sadistic seniors and other authority figures.
Nanno humiliates, inflicts injuries, incites mobs, provokes murder, and upends status quo. Her ultimate target, however, is the culture of impunity and institutionalised oppression. That’s why, even though the series draws its urgency from the context of contemporary Thailand, Girl From Nowhere has also touched a chord with audiences elsewhere – presumably young, frustrated viewers who also nurse a pent-up fury against their own respective systems.
To our best knowledge, Nanno is a demon child operating in a world that resembles both real-life Thailand and a fantasy domain where human rules don’t apply. In one episode, she seduces then punishes a high school playboy by making him pregnant. In another, she is beaten to death in a hazing ritual, then returns for gruesome payback. In one episode that borrows from a real-world case, Nanno goes after a rich, spoiled girl who mowed several people down in a speeding accident. And in the episode titled “Liberation”, shot in monochrome, Nanno sets fire to a school’s rulebook and rouses submissive students to rebel against their dictatorial teachers.
With her creepy bangs and lopsided smirk, Nanno is inscrutable – perhaps a deliberate attempt at enigma, or perhaps because she’s just an empty vessel. Her ideology is muddled while her relentless, maniacal bloodletting sometimes borders on being fascistic. And yet, somewhere in those puddles of congealed blood, there’s a triumphalist glee and sense of long-delayed justice, to be savoured by the international Gen Y-Z crowds Netflix brings.
“Bad Students want change. Nanno wants blood and the last laugh”
Let’s go back to the Bad Students movement, the fertile ground from which Girl From Nowhere sprouts. Nakrian liew in Thai, the banner was adopted around the middle of 2020 by a group of high school students who formed a sizeable portion in the popular street protests against the conservative government. Last February, a progressive political party called Future Forward, a favourite among young voters, had been disbanded by a controversial court ruling some suspected was an attempt to weed out a fledgling opposition. That, too, was a contributing factor to the widespread frustration.
But the protests and the emergence of Bad Students weren’t just driven by national politics; they are an expression of cultural dissent, a tectonic generational shift, and a burst wound long festering under structural narrow-mindedness and conservative paternalism. The banner “Bad Students” is a deliberate provocation aimed at disrupting the official narrative of “good and moral students” prescribed by the state and school.
The movement raised demands for a litany of changes to long-revered rules, from haircut to uniform to revision of educational policy to a new election. Female students – Bad Students has been driven more by outspoken girls than boys, another thread picked up by Girl From Nowhere – brought the issue of sexual harassment by teachers to light. Bad Students staged a series of colourful yet serious, prankish yet forceful street protests that mocked and challenged the authorities, throwing irreverent humour into their campaign.
The generational rift remains deep even though the steam has run out. Protest leaders, young and old, have been summoned by the police. A 16-year-old has even been slapped with a lese majeste charge – under a century-old law that criminalises insulting the monarchy – and may face jail time. At the peak of the protests, university students were arrested in a broad crackdown. Some key movement leaders have been jailed, and bail denied. The loss of leadership – not to mention the pandemic – has stalled the protests’ momentum. The adults, in short, are not going to let the children win, not now, not soon.
Girl From Nowhere lands in the wake of all of this. Nanno arrives red-lipped and with a vengeance. She doesn’t make demands; she shows up in each episode bent on punishing someone or something. Where impunity usually reigns, her modus operandi is to turn the schoolyard into a penal colony.
But look carefully, and Nanno is not Bad Students personified. Rather, she’s an exaggerated, showboating version. Bad Students want change. Nanno wants blood and the last laugh. And like the people she’s punished, she gets away with it because she’s privileged above the rule of the living. Her non-human status also means her vengeance is not anchored in any real-world struggle. The “Liberation” episode, which has come to be hailed as the pinnacle of the season, is so literal-minded, befuddling, and reflexively self-righteous that it becomes clear how Nanno, for all her posturing, could care less about rights or justice.
Girl From Nowhere posits itself as a nightmare – an entertaining nightmare at a time when Thailand (or the world) is led by conniving, powerful men. But while we can enjoy the thrills of nightmares, especially on screen and in the privacy of our streaming algorithm, we always wake up and realise that everything is so much worse once we’ve opened our eyes.
Girl From Nowhere season 2 is now streaming on Netflix