By Julianne Hing
In the near future, killer cyborgs and invading alien creatures are nowhere to be found. The greatest threats to society are much less far-fetched: the scarcity of water, suffocating economic inequity and, most deadly of all, human beings. That’s according to “Advantageous,” a probing, compassionate film directed by Jennifer Phang and co-written by lead actress Jacqueline Kim (“Charlotte Sometimes”). The film has been receiving great reviews and accolades, including a special jury prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for Collaborative Vision.
"Advantageous" explores a pre-apocalyptic future through the eyes of Gwen Koh (played by Kim), a single mother who's comfortably perched as the face of an anodyne-sounding company called the Center for Advanced Health and Living, which pioneers a terrifying new science: total-body physical reconfiguration. Gwen's their star pitchwoman - smart, stylish, facile with languages, with an ageless, distinctly Asian face. Her daughter Jules is bright and precocious in the way that upwardly mobile, middle class children must be if they want to have any footing in the country's cutthroat educational systems. But when the Center decides to reformulate its marketing agenda, Gwen's forced to consider undergoing her own company's radical procedures to keep her job and ensure a future for Jules, who's on the cusp of growing out of "the only time in her life when her choices will make a difference," another mother warns Gwen.
The ensuing drama is smart, deeply felt, and crushing, largely because the future Phang and Kim envision isn't too far off from our current social reality. In Gwen's world, excruciating educational competition rules the lives of children. To address mass unemployment, wives and mothers are no longer welcome in the workplace and are being returned to the home. "Safer than putting millions of desperate men on the streets," an executive tells Gwen. Explosions from wars or earth-trembling natural disasters-it's never clear which - are everyday, passing occurrences. And the burden of shouldering the ensuing social panic falls sharply on women's shoulders. Gwen and Jules' apartment walls shudder with the sounds of sobbing neighbors.
As bleak as the future is, salvation may be possible - albeit at great cost. "Advantageous" makes a hopeful case for kindness, the redemptive power of forgiveness, and community as salve against the cruelties of the world. It turns out that humans can be more than a collection of features they employ to maintain their economic foothold in an ever-more precarious world. But only if we don't deny ourselves that right first.
"The [special] effects are sci-fi," Kim told CAAM, referring to the holographic phone calls and flying discs which pepper the movie, "but the situation isn't." Kim and Phang chatted about all that and more with CAAM.
I've seen the film described as "feminist sci-fi." You've called it "domestic sci-fi." Can you discuss what you mean by that term?
Jacqueline Kim: Science fiction usually means speculative future, but it usually has to deal with war and nations and aliens and men. Sci-fi for me is so deeply metaphorical, and that’s what’s exciting to me. Jen and I are both interested in the way life is going and we wanted to take it to its logical next step and see how audiences feel.
We in our lifetimes are going to see people not need to drive anymore. Machines are going to take care of driving. Things are going to happen, and maybe this is what progress looks like, but when you come up with a great idea, you have to think about what the ramifications are going to be.
The [special] effects in the film are sci-fi, but the situation isn't. We're taking a situation that's very real right now and proposing what it'll be like in 20 years, but we're not highlighting huge technological innovations. We're trying to talk about the social and psychological shifts that will take place in the future.
You captured so much about this current social moment - unprecedented economic wealth as well as growing poverty for many everyday people, extremely competitive education systems, racial anxiety. Is there anything in particular that inspired the conditions Gwen and her daughter are living through?
JK: I hate to use phrases like “these are desperate times,” but I think they’re going to get even more so. We’re seeing natural disasters and the way Earth is responding to the way we use the planet. These things are coming to our shores and aren’t going to go away. I don’t think we want to be a harbinger of exactly what’s to come but we want to speak about what’s going on in our lives right now and say: What can we be aware of? What can we address?
On the more micro level, my mother was born in Japan and came over here, and my father came here after both of them living through [WWII]. I saw how isolated my mother's life could be. And I think it's funny that you raise your children in America and you think their life will be different, but your parents present to you what they have. To me, a big part of Gwen's narrative is that she lived in a dysfunctional family system for so long, and it's catching up with her.
Jennifer Phang: My mom and father had to be separated when I was younger because of jobs. My dad was in Malaysia and my mom was here in the U.S. and I could feel how alone she felt. She would be working two jobs to make sure she was building this nest egg up from nothing. She was the breadwinner of the family for a period of time while also feeling pressures of what both Asian and American society wanted from women. Not only does a woman have to protect her daughter, but she has to be a fantastic housewife, and also look great, and also look young, and be smart, and also make her kid happy, and also discipline them.
I lived in New York City for a while, in New York City I saw the density of the population and different kinds of mothers and fathers and children from different socioeconomic backgrounds at once. I remember the expressions of their faces, seeing how they walked around, particularly the mothers of Manhattan, from the Upper West Side going all the way up to Inwood. There was a very sharp contrast in opportunity, ability, and access to education. I was concerned about the position women have in society. It gelled into an idea of a mother and daughter trying to survive in the world, especially in a world that is hard for single women, where the job market is challenging, and a woman is dependent on her experience for her job.
How much do you think Gwen’s Asianness had to do with her struggles, and how she’s received by the world and the choices she’s forced to make?
JK: Because Jen and I care so much about the socioeconomic political framework, I would say that we didn’t really invest at all in what her background was. But I know and am aware that it’s intrinsic in how I write. Very often when I write it relates to something in my life, in ways known and unknown to me. I’m an Asian American actor, and I’m aging, and I’m getting some of the best work in film at a time when a lot of Hollywood actors, usually Caucasian, are being put into retirement. It’s an irony, but that’s something that I relate to.
And this is something that's part of my Asian spine: I was raised to perform well, and I think that's how Asian women are raised. There's a high value placed on efficiency, modesty, humility, and sacrifice. But I've said this to other people who also say they get the same messages, too. I am zeroing in as a writer on someone whose performance life is coming to an end, but she's still there.
JP: When I was growing up watching television, there was the occasional Asian woman who was the anchor person, or a reality show host, and that started me asking myself: Why is it okay for Asian women to do this? Is there a commercial reason that it’s okay for Asian women?
As a woman, you may hear things like, "You're so beautiful, you can get married. Work with the things you have." "You can do anything because you're beautiful." That can become a problem because it can force you into a direction that makes you rely on that trait for too long.
If you just rely on your appearance, that appearance is going to change and then what after that? So I started looking at how race played into that. Gwen is Asian and that was beneficial to the company at the moment. She had a dynamic quality to her, but at some moment if the company's agenda changes, where does that leave her?
I was at a screening and an audience member reminded us that in Korea, mothers are paying for their daughters’ plastic surgery procedures, and that is something we are definitely aware of.
Inasmuch as sci-fi functions as allegory, are there any warnings or notes of caution you have for society?
JK: Innovation should never be seen as equal to the development of one’s soul. They’re two very different things and I think we’re a society that’s a little bit too excited by innovation and doesn’t know the consequences of prioritizing convenience and productivity and, quote-unquote, progress over being present for one’s own life.
You make a passionate argument for humanity, whatever that means to whoever's watching it. I don't mean it in a cynical way, but how far can kindness really get you? Can kindness be our salvation?
JK: That's a great question, and I feel like you reveal a lot in your question. You're monetizing kindness in your question, not saying it's your intention. In the film, Jules says, "Being kind is being weak." She's being really real, because her mom may have been kind and she expired. To me, kindness means you value your life and your struggle and understand other people's struggles, so you have compassion for them.
There's an expression, "drama free," and I hate it. It's like saying, "I'm smooth, I sail smooth and I've got no problems," and that is such bullshit. There's no one on this planet who doesn't have a conflict within themselves or with other people. So if it's genuine kindness, I think it comes from understanding one's own same struggles and extending that understanding to someone else, giving them a break.
JP: When we were talking about the feature film, we were talking about what happens to Jules, and I wanted to expand the idea of what a community means, what a family means, and accepting and putting behind bad mistakes and forgiving people for their failings.
Gwen had hurt people, but it wasn't in a vacuum. She had come from a place that was hurtful. The most obvious thing people walk away from the film with is a sense of caring, kindness, compassion, and taking care of each other. We are getting at the idea that every life is an effort to try to find some sort of happiness or sense of peace, and that we need to have empathy for other people's attempts to find peace.
“Advantageous” is currently available on Comcast Video on Demand during the month of July.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julianne Hing is a writer and reporter who covers the intersections of race, politics, and culture. She tweets at @juliannehing. She is a guest blogger from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.