ADVANTAGEOUS screened as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For additional screen times, head here.
Advantageous is a marvel of a film. I’m always impressed when indie films pull off sci-fi because often, as is the case with this film, the size and scope, not to mention visual effects, are vast and could easily fit into a blockbuster budget. So it’s a testament to director Jennifer Phang and her team that they were able to create a very full, realized futuristic world and tell a compelling, heartbreaking story on top of it.
Gwen Koh lives in a beautiful, futuristic metropolis. She beautiful and calm and graceful. She works as the face (spokesperson) for a “medical” company that offers treatments to allow you to become the best you possible. And since this is the future, we can guess it isn’t Botox. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, also co-writer) is a single parent and her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), is talented and inquisitive and earnest—all of the qualities you would want in a daughter. But Gwen’s perfect life comes crashing down when it is decided she is “too old” to be the spokesperson for her company. With no work prospects and Jules’ school tuition looming in the tens of thousands, Gwen is getting desperate. The only option she sees is the new, somewhat radical procedure that her company will soon be offering: a complete body transfer. (Out with the old, in with the new, right?)
Phang’s rich new world leaves much to interpretation, which I appreciate. There’s no need to outwardly explain everything, and through visuals and dialogue we can piece together that in this future, despite amazing technological advances, it’s not a great time for women. There’s a shift to get them back home and out of the job market, so to be a young woman is hard enough, but to be a middle-aged woman? Forget about it. Teenage prostitution is at an all-time high and women are living in the streets. This is a world for the wealthy, where you only get what you want by having connections and knowing people. This is also a world that is on the brink of collapse, with seemingly daily explosions and water being rationed to households.
I can’t think of a story that hits closer to home for women than this one. Here is a single mother who is being told she is “too old” to be of use and she is being shut out of other jobs because of her age and status as well. All Gwen wants to do is give her daughter the best possible chance to make it in this stunning, yet cruel, future. If you had the option, would you change yourself completely (like, literally change your body) to ensure some sort of future for your daughter? Would you still be you? (But like the company’s slogan says, you will be the best possible you now. Golly!) But more so, would it even matter that you were you if your daughter was okay?
Needless to say, this is a pretty heavy film. It’s lightened with poetic, thoughtful dialogue and edited in a lyrical, fluid sort of way. Kim’s Gwen is expressive and loving, full of heartache and fierceness for the her daughter’s future. The cinematography lends to that fluidity and sort of moves along like in a dream, paying careful attention to architecture and space. The beautiful, haunting score also takes advantage of its surroundings through ambient sound. And those visual effects, wow! It’s very subtle and tasteful; mostly just the skyline is updated with intricate, gorgeous buildings, but anyone with an understanding of visual effects knows just how difficult shots like that are. So mad props to the teams responsible for those effects.
Advantageous moves along quite deliberately and does slow down a lot near the end. But the concept and story, told through Phang’s strong, stylistic voice, are too arresting and heartbreaking to care too much about that. It’s definitely a “read between the lines” sort of film and it’s definitely a powerful conversation piece for women’s rights. Case in point: I overheard some women in the lobby after the film just not getting it. One said, “Why didn’t she just get another job?” Another said, “Yeah, she could’ve just tried harder.” Oof.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.