In the world of Jennifer Phang's new film Advantageous, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown more precarious than ever. Set in the near future, Advantageous follows Gwen Ko (Jacqueline Kim), a single mother struggling to hold on to her job at a cosmetic surgery company while raising her daughter, Jules. Facing the prospect of being phased out as the company's public face, Gwen must weigh whether it is worthwhile or safe to undergo the center's latest breakthrough procedure: the wholesale transfer of conscience and soul into a fresh, new lab-designed body.
Declining the procedure would leave Gwen without a job or the means to pay for Jules' tuition; but it's not clear what the mental and emotional costs of procedure will be, or what it will mean to raise a daughter in a new body.
I liked the idea of having a traumatic past and being able to leave it behind somehow by transferring into a new body. —Jennifer Phang
Advantageous flips the promise of fresh, elective bodies and shows a darker reality. The film highlights the probability that women and people of color may feel compelled to undergo such a process because competition in the corporate world would compel them to perceive such measures as necessary, if not inevitable.
This story of competition and physical anxiety is set against Phang's vision of a future New York City, with a skyline inspired by buildings like the Hearst Tower and Frank Gehry's rippling structure at 8 Spruce Street. Firmly rooted in a tradition of earthbound sci-fi cinema which includes Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, Advantageous imagines a future where corporate America wields the power recast human bodies in the name of marketing.
VICE: How did you develop Advantageous from an idea into a feature film?
Jennifer Phang: I have a sensitivity to what women go through, in terms of how they look for ways to find a place in this world, to succeed or to find self worth. At school, at work, or at home they're constantly trying to change their appearance and self-improve. Men have struggles, but women are always reminded about how they look. I've witnessed and experienced so much suffering on that side. It was something that I wanted to talk about and explore, [to see] how we could get all those issues together in one story.
I liked the idea of having a traumatic past and being able to leave it behind somehow by transferring into a new body and having that crash into a mother-daughter story, all at once. I'd lived in Los Angeles and I'd lived in Malaysia and in the San Francisco area, but in New York you get exposed to a wide variety of people dealing with survival. For working-class parents, the struggle is finding ways to make sure that their kids become great people, and it seems like this would be so much easier for kids who have money and access. I began to better understand my own mother, who came to the United States by herself. We went through a lot of stressful times when she was trying to survive and working multiple shifts, and my awareness of this became more and more clear as I lived in New York and truly started to see what survival meant.
I want a society where we really look out for each other as humans, and it's almost embarrassing to even say that. —Jennifer Phang
The film's vision of New York City in some near future feels very plausible. Can you describe how you developed the New York of Advantageous?
I've always been influenced by water and nature in my previous work. My family made me start snorkeling when I was really young, so it just comes naturally for me to try and find beauty. I imagined a future where nature and water start to slip away from us, so we compensate for that with our technology and architecture. I worked with Katherine Tate and Jean Austin, who are my visual effects artists, to bring organic lines and forms into the architecture and holograms in the films. We emphasized that things should be curved, and explored all sorts of shapes.
There are two buildings I had some really specific ideas for. The headquarters of the Cryer Corporation has a feminine form and looks a little bit like a mannequin without a dress on, an ideal female form. We thought it would be cool if the building could be crying, so we let a waterfall cry from the neck. Then we had another building which we called The Orator, which looks like a crouching female form with smoke coming from her mouth. There's an idea behind that of thoughts and words dissipating into the atmosphere.
What does it mean to work in sci-fi right now, and to work in sci-fi as a woman? Who are your influences and your contemporaries?
As a woman working with sci-fi, I've had a lot of support just because of the singular qualities of Advantageous and the fact that we were doing something exciting. It's hard to know what it's like to be a woman making sci-fi just because it's so unique. You have a lot of up-and-coming filmmakers who are women who are making sci-fi, but it's hard to identify role models. I was really inspired and excited by the transporting qualities of things like Blade Runner and Ghost In The Shell and lots of anime, like Neon Genesis Evangelion. What I loved about those kinds of sci-fi was that there was a lot of emotion that I could connect with, being an outsider and feeling rejected by normals. Sci-fi allows you to investigate real problems while also relaxing a little bit about your own world. If you're concerned about the state of your life in the moment, it's a little bit easier to extrapolate it to another planet.
The speculative technology of the film enables people to download their soul and consciousness into a new body, with the risk that critical memories and feelings may be permanently lost in the process. Where did this idea come from?
I became very suspicious of sales after I attended a few real estate seminars. There are these organizations that sell real estate courses, and I can say that they mostly work out fine. People take these courses and begin to show houses and become entrepreneurs. There was the audience that was receptive and desperate, and then there was me, who was questioning and observing the mode of the presentation and the instructors. I could tell that [the instructors were suspicious] of me for being too critical, but I was there trying to understand manipulation, because it's an important issue. There's a hopeful part of me that wants a society where honesty prevails, and we just kind of find a way to coexist that doesn't force us to deceive each other about our appearance or age. I want a society where we really look out for each other as humans, and it's almost embarrassing to even say that. I know that it just doesn't work to say that I want a beautiful world in a business environment.
Advantageous is available now on Netflix.
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