Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous is a feminist science fiction film for lovers of French New Wave cinema and intimate family dramas. I talked to Phang about the inspiration for the film, the film’s world-building, and feminism in science fiction.
A feminist science fiction film for lovers of French New Wave cinema and intimate family dramas may itself sound like science fiction, but with her sophomore film Advantageous, Bay Area writer-director Jennifer Phang has made this a reality. When so much of sci-fi cinema is male-dominated and action-focussed, here is that rare film from a female perspective, focussed on female characters who live in a richly realized futuristic dystopian world that’s not so different from today.
Set in 2041, Advantageous shows us a world in which women, especially older women and women of colour, are even more marginalized than they are today. Finding a job can be impossible since men take priority. For forty-year-old Gwen (Jacqueline Kim), the spokesperson for a medical technology company, it’s terrifying just trying to stay afloat and support her daughter (Samantha Kim). She wants to give her daughter every opportunity in this tough world. When she faces a tough choice from her intimidatingly intelligent boss (Jennifer Ehle) between losing her job or undergoing a dangerous procedure to switch bodies, which involves dumping her consciousness into a new vessel, she contemplates the risks.
Especially for such a low budget film, the world building in Advantageous is impressive and often a visual delight: see this on a big screen while you have the chance. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the design precise, so that even though it’s character-driven, it still has an other-worldly excitement to it.
Since making the film, Phang has received a Sundance Jury Award and the San Francisco Film Society’s inaugural Women Filmmaker Fellowship, to finance her next genre film. She’s also been invited to be part of the American Film Institute’s mentorship program, as part of Obama’s “A Call to Arts.” At the LA Asian Pacific Film Fest 2015, Advantageous took home awards for Editing, Score, Directing, and a Jury award for Jacqueline Kim for her Renaissance Artist accomplishments for co-writing the feature and her starring role as Gwen.
I sat down with Phang to talk about the inspiration for the film, how she went about world-building, and feminism in science fiction.
Seventh Row (7R): The feature length film Advantageous started as a short film. Where did the idea for it come from?
Jennifer Phang (JP): I’m a big fan of science fiction, like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Battlestar Galactica. All of these science fiction films and series have something to do with being able to put consciousness into new bodies or new shells, and they explore the beginning and end of consciousness. So that came naturally to me. What if these technologies were available today? What would we do with them to give ourselves a leg up in the workplace? It’s so much about the surrender a parent would have when making a sacrifice for their kids.
7R: The film is such a personal story. It’s a heightened, dystopian reality, but Gwen’s financial struggles, trying to do what she can for her child, felt very relatable and contemporary. What do you see as the advantages of working within this genre for exploring these issues?
JP: Great science fiction provides a way for a viewer to escape the stress of their own reality, but still, as a viewer, gives you that depth of experience. Science fiction explores social issues through allegory; for example, Battlestar Galactica explores warfare and class. Because it’s removed from our reality, through its setting, it allows you to lose yourself a little bit. You don’t have to relate every single thing to your life, so it allows you to go deeper without depressing your audience too much. For me, there’s a wow factor to science fiction that I love to explore.
As a filmmaker, I get to design new cities and technologies. All of the design and world creation, I think, helps an audience enjoy themselves by being in a different land. You have many opportunities to create bold and stunning imagery and have fun. If I’m having fun as a filmmaker, creating cool new things and playing with new ideas, I think the audience will, too.
7R: How did you go about designing new cities and technologies?
JP: For Advantageous, I collaborated with Jean Elston and a design team for the concept of two hero buildings. I wanted them to speak to the female form and our obsession with youth, form, and shape. I wrote into the script that there are these two buildings: one is called The Cryer, and one is called The Orator. The Cryer was a building that was shaped like a mannequin. Water spills from her neck and comes down her body. It’s like her neck is crying.
The other is called The Orator, which is supposed to have smoke coming from her mouth. The idea is that the smoke is whatever she’s speaking about, which is coming out of her mouth and dissipating into the sky. To me, those are two tragic ideas of womanhood. When you’re speaking as an Orator, people may recognize what you’re trying to say, but then it disappears. It was, in a poetic way, speaking to the futility of our words. But you could also say it’s a great thing to try to voice your thoughts.
7R: You also shot on location, at least in San Francisco. It really grounds the film and makes it feel real and tangible.
JP: We shot on location in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But we shot additional photography in Los Angeles and San Francisco, so we basically mixed all three cities and created this mishmash. We knew we couldn’t design an entire city from scratch, just because of the budget. But either way, it made sense to us that it had to be relatable, to a degree. I don’t think that holograms and consciousness copying is that far in the future, so we did want to keep it grounded a little bit in our own reality.
We would pick the more modern buildings [to shoot]. I also wanted there to be a bit of an old school aesthetic. Having lived in New York, you know that the old buildings don’t go away. The city tries to keep its old style while building up around it.
In a way, that’s what’s going on with Gwen herself. She loves old music; [she has] a real piano. She has old Victorian ornamentation in her house. She likes things older and slower. She just happens to live in a world that’s fast and new.
7R: What was interesting, to you, about Gwen liking things slower while living in a fast world?
JP: This was a very decisive collaboration with Jacqueline. In our minds, as much as Gwen was trying to keep up, she needed to take a moment to slow down. There’s one scene where she goes to what we call The Quiet Room. It’s in a moment after she’s been overwhelmed with horrible news, and she realises that the world around her is moving too quickly. She just goes and pays for some time to just lay there and not have too much sensory overload.
Sensory overload can be quite destructive and can actually change your psyche. As the world becomes more and more busy, and over-stimulated with social media, our identities get compromised or shaped in ways we don’t necessarily realise.
That was the impetus to have Gwen sort of slow down and take her time, and to be in touch with things that were more old and natural. What I was trying to do was leave space for the audience to really be living Gwen’s life with her: hearing the things she heard, sitting through the moments she sits through, in a patient way. So instead of making it a plot-driven cinematic experience, we wanted it to be an experience-driven film.
[When I was writing the script with Jacqueline Kim,] we’d also have each other watch different films. I had a lot of my crew watch The Age of Innocence. It was one of the earlier films that inspired me. It’s about unexpressed desire, unexpressed pain, and unfulfilled potential. It also took place in high society. Class and elitism was a big part of that world. So that was an influence. Jacqueline asked me to watch Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. She wanted me to check that out because there’s a big part of the film where we’re just following Gwen around during the day, experiencing things the way she experiences them.
7R: You’re dealing with some tough issues. Does science fiction allow you to explore those in a way that’s less confrontational? Like, it doesn’t go commented on, really, that the body Gwen chooses — that she’s younger, yes — but she’s also choosing a woman of a different race.
JP: Non-confrontational, very good point. When I was thinking about race and Gwen’s race versus other people’s race, I have no point of view about whether it’s good or bad to have those people as any particular race, but I do notice that spokespeople are basically creating an image for a company. [It was] the idea that race can be used as a brand. I think it helps people to be aware that race can be part of branding in business.
Gwen’s company had an Asian-American female representative, and then they decided that this year, they needed someone younger and a more universal look. It’s not saying it’s better or worse, but more that they wanted a change because they wanted to target and make money off of a different market.
7R: You don’t see a lot of sci-fi that’s centered around women and their struggles, at least in the movies. There’s a long tradition of female-centered stories in sci-fi literature. But you don’t see as much of that in cinema. What did you think is missing, and what stories do you think need to be told? And how, or did it, inform your interest in making this movie?
JP: What was exciting about the feature version [of Advantageous], for me, was being able to increase the number of cast members. By increasing the number of roles, we’re actually increasing the number of women. It’s a story grounded in a female perspective, and it’s about how girls and women deal with the challenges of living in a dystopian future in different ways. We were following three or four different kinds of women of different economic classes, each having very women-specific problems. What was exciting to me was, as a woman, how do you deal with these pressures? How do you deal with your fear?
You’re right that, in sci-fi cinema, often the woman is an android or maybe she’s sexualized. In Battlestar Galactica, the series, I think that was a bit of an inspiration because there are female pilots who have real pilot problems, but they also have women problems. And there’s a female president in Battlestar Galactica who has both presidential problems and woman problems. That’s what I found really inspiring: showing women as complete people.
I’ve grown up in a pretty male-driven society, both in Malaysia and the United States. I do feel like the value system has been designed by men and for men. I had to spend a lot of time figuring out that that wasn’t the only value system that I could strive to fulfill.
7R: Are there specific things you’d like to see happen more in sci-fi or that you may be working on in the future?
JP: Female perspective and diversity are things that I’m excited about for the future of science fiction. We also need women scientists —real ones — who are actually the main characters. Two of my projects right now have women scientists at the centre of the story. One of them is based on a climate scientist, and she’s one of the advisors on the project. My other project is really a fantasy-romance, about a couple who are physicists, but it’s mostly about a woman who is dealing with her past through science.
Advantageous is now streaming on Netflix and available to rent on iTunes and Amazon.
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