There are many ways to approach science-fiction narratives, but one of the best has always been to create a lived-in world, filled with strange events and logic that often go unremarked upon by the characters. That’s always been part of the charm of the original Star Wars trilogy, for instance – you didn’t need to know what, exactly, a “nerf herder” or a “gundark” is, or where Ord Mantell is located, to get the points being conveyed. It’s enough that the characters know. That off-hand familiarity lends the fantastic a kind of realism. Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous – a feminist dystopian examination of beauty standards and impossible choices – isn’t Star Wars, but in this key respect, it’s learned that basic lesson well.
Phang’s film is also gorgeously photographed, with surprisingly strong special effects for what is, in many other regards, a low-budget, character-based political melodrama.
It’s about one woman’s struggle to provide for her child in a world in which women are underpaid and even railroaded out of the workplace by social conservatives and urged back into the home, and where impossible beauty standards, foisted on half the population by the joint forces of capitalism and patriarchy, delimit choices and structure lives.
In other words, a world not too far removed from this one … just with more flying spaceships and the occasional rebel attack in the back of the frame.
Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim, who co-wrote the screenplay with Phang) has long been the commercial face of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a sort of Cronenbergian future-tech corporation. However, times are changing, and her employers are looking for someone to “appeal to a younger demographic,” and, it is none-too-subtly implied, someone with a bit more “universal appeal” (read: whiter). Her firing comes at the worst time: she desperately needs funds to send her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim, exceptional) to a prestigious academy, hoping to maximize her chances of success in a world where everything depends, for women, on entering the social elite. Bad timing leads to desperation.
After exhausting the few options she has – her job placement service has nothing for her except work as an egg donor (women’s bodies have largely stopped producing ova, for reasons the film, smartly, doesn’t much bother to explain), a phone call to her estranged parents doesn’t go well, and her (also-estranged) cousin Lily (Jennifer Ikeda) has her own kids to worry about – Gwen agrees to become the first public test subject for a new procedure. This will ensure Jules’ future options, but comes at a price. The procedure involves the transfer of her consciousness into an entirely new body, which, she’s warned, will be risky and involve “pain that will never go away.” Only in the film’s final 30 minutes do we discover how true that might turn out to be.
It’s an ingenious twist on the body-switch trope, mapped not only onto feminist critiques of identity and the commercialization of women’s bodies but also intelligent sci-fi considerations of consciousness and the continuity of self. It’s a heady mixture of themes, and Phang creates real drama around Gwen’s decision and its aftermath.
Apart from some unnecessarily expository dialog (so at odds with the more general show-don’t-tell sensibility guiding the film’s visuals and pacing), Advantageous is remarkably self-assured for a director with only one full-length film on her resume (2008’s Half-Life, which I now want to seek out). The performances are all strong – particularly the younger Kim’s, whose over-achieving, angsty Jules is torn between loving her mother as she was and living with what she has become – and the images impressive.
But the real draw for Advantageous are the ideas, for the most part effortlessly conveyed, and the gnawing sense that this is a world all too easy to imagine.