Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Film: Advantageous

Advantageous 3

Samantha Kim & Jacqueline Kim in Advantageous.

Who: Jacqueline Kim, star & co-screenwriter; Jennifer Phang, director, co-screenwriter, & co-editor
What: Sci-Fi Drama
Where: Netflix streaming
When: 2015
Why Watch: The classically trained Korean-American actress Jacqueline Kim, who has roots in musical theatre (she won the 2003 LA Drama Critics Circle Award for her lead performance in the East West Players’ production of Sondheim’s Passion), co-penned her first screenplay with director Jennifer Phang. In 2008, Phang, of mixed Chinese Malaysian and Vietnamese heritage, was named one of “The 25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker magazine for her pre-apocalyptic/paranormal feature debut Half-Life. Advantageous, which began as a short film Phang wrote for the Futurestates series on PBS.org, was awarded the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Collaborative Vision.

Advantageous takes place in the near future, where single mom Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim), a spokeswoman for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, discovers she’s in danger of losing her job because the world she lives in so drastically favors the young. This spells disaster for her young daughter Jules (Samantha Kim), who requires the advantage of expensive private schooling in order to save her from the brutal economic disparities rampant in their dystopian society. Gwen does what any mother in her position would do: she agrees to go through an untested, life-altering medical procedure that allows her to keep her job – and her daughter on the right, prosperous track.

Phang was inspired to write the film by her perceptions of children of “advantage” on the NYC subway, and this theme of motherhood and providing/privilege – and how those change based on one’s income – are woven throughout this quiet film. But Phang and Kim, even more vitally, have crafted a sobering and intimate observation of womanhood in a genre that’s so often synonymous with flashy, action-packed masculinity. Silky CGI cityscapes and holograms-as-the-new-texts (Richard Wong elegantly captures Joshua Petersen’s subtly advanced art direction) form the sophisticated backdrop of this cerebral Sci-Fi constructed on a shoestring budget.

Despite the surprisingly good-for-an-indie visuals, the focus remains on the women who inhabit – and suffer the biases – of this state-of-the-art world. “Am I too old to be of use?” Gwen frankly, and painfully, asks her boss and friend, Fisher (the excellent James Urbaniak). It’s important to note that Fisher is one of only two male characters in this female-dominated film; he is the (white) man who, despite his sympathy, ultimately determines a woman’s worth based on her looks and age. The other male presence, Han (Ken Jeong, playing it straight), is an adulterer who suffers no consequences for his actions, while Gwen suffers them all. The commentary here comes off more subtly than described: men are the policymakers whose choices have little effect on them, but which consistently, and severely, alter the lives of the women around them.

Sound like a downer? In a way, it is – the future looks much like the present. Advantageous is at its strongest when mother and daughter, warmly and engagingly portrayed by the two Kims, speak openly about their circumstances; even young Jules has sharp feminist insight (“Is going forward going backwards for women?”). When that relationship goes through a marked transformation, the emotional pull of the story falls away, and the film – and its ideas – begin to lose steam. (It also fails to show the economically-disadvantaged it so often references as the imperative for Gwen’s drastic decision.) Despite its flaws, Advantageous is just that: smart feminist commentary in the guise of socio-economic Sci-Fi that is well-worth watching.

 

Bechdel TestPASS

  • Two named women…: Yes, there are only two male characters in this overwhelmingly female cast.
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYesI’m not actually sure they ever talk about a man (other than briefly discussing Jules’s father).

Racial Bechdel Test: PASS

  • Two named people of color…: YesThe cast is extremely diverse, and is beautifully captured as such in scene one when three young girls – Black, Asian, Caucasian – play a game in which “only one can be the winner – if you cheat, nobody wins.”
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes.
  • About something other than a white person…: Yes. There are only a few white characters in the film and none of them are leading players.

Why the Bechdel Tests?

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