A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.
Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers as Cheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.
The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.
In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.
Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”
Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:
Gwen: Drake, are you human being?
Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?
Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?
Drake: That is a definition of a human being?
Gwen: I didn’t know.
Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.
To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.
Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.
In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.
Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:
I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.
This review is dedicated to Michele Kort, who taught me how to be journalist and how to live in the human state of not knowing.