The Woman in the Mirror: Talking to Advantageous Director Jennifer Phang

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06/17/2015 8:25 AM |
photo courtesy of Good Neighbors Media

Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous takes place in a future with many familiar aspects, both social (extreme wealth stratification, unrest among the politically powerless) and technological (privately owned surveillance drones, nonhuman tech-support operators). The most speculative aspect of the film is grounded in similarly resonant circumstances. Star and cowriter Jacqueline Kim plays Gwen, a corporate-exec single mother about to be let go by her bosses at the “Center for Advanced Health and Living” just as she’s struggling with the costs of educating her world-weary but fearsomely gifted daughter Jules (Samantha Kim)—the right private schools are the only way anyone knows of setting a kid up for an adulthood of material self-sufficiency, let alone happiness. Gwen is, however, presented with the option of becoming the first public face of the Center’s new product, a consciousness-transfer into a donor body (without giving too much away, the big-eyed actress Freya Adams is identified as a face of the future as Gwen leafs through an album of head shots). An affecting mother-daughter indie drama with an engrossing philosophical hook and dystopian details, Advantageous plays at BAMcinemaFest on June 21, and opens at Cinema Village on June 26. Phang answered some questions of mine over email.

photo courtesy of Good Neighbors Media

Gwen is told that her employers want someone with a more “universal” look, which is a euphemism for “white” I can imagine casting directors have probably used in conversation with Jacqueline Kim over the course of her career; and prospective investors in conversation with you. The line cues us to note the ways in which Gwen, who’s cut herself off from her extended family and seeks to succeed in the corporate world, on her employers’ terms, has internalized this attitude as a goal. I’m curious to hear if there were any specific aspects of the finished film that you really had to fight for? Or just the more general impossibilities of indie-film funding…

This is interesting! In my mind the phrase “universal look” wasn’t exactly a euphemism for “white” (though it often goes that way), but for a non-specific, multi-racial look.   And so the story may not be merely about Gwen negotiating her own “whiteness.”

It’s interesting however that for many viewers that “universal look” we explore through Freya Adams does signify a “white” or “European” ideal. Some people think she looks Hispanic, others see that she’s part East Indian, and many think she is white. And I think that is consistent with what our fictional corporation was hoping for—a spokesperson who has a look that connects with a wide group of consumers.

Jacqueline Kim is Korean-American. The subtext is that Gwen’s look was a benefit to the company for a moment, but that moment had passed.

It’s an astute observation when you say Gwen has internalized the need for a universal look as her goal by defining herself by her employer’s terms—which in my view is the imperative of appealing to the widest market. And yes, more than once I have looked at concerns about market reach with financiers.

As for aspects of the film I had to fight for, our lead producer Robert Chang and our financiers supported the film’s vision of offering a diversified look at the future of women and families from the very beginning. Robert often speaks about how our world is by nature diverse, and our films simply reflects the diverse world we live in. He and I joined Good Neighbors Media in a commitment to media focused on the future of women and girls, and reflection of diversity is part of that.

My efforts were devoted to creating a dynamic experience with the resources available. Sometimes that meant committing to more time editing, more development and as much polishing work and flourishes as resources would afford in production design, visual effects, sound, and music. I had some ambitions in some of the more elaborate buildings. For example, I worked with our VFX and CG team to create the woman-shaped “Cryer building.” The skyscraper has water running down its mannequin-shaped length. We were close to achieving the desired effect and committed to refining it more even after our premiere at Sundance.


The relationship between mother Gwen and daughter Jules is at the heart of the film; the young actress Samantha Kim is quite strong in the part of a believably precocious, insecure, almost world-weary tween. Did your conception of the role of Jules change between the short and the feature, as you were expanding it with a particular actress in mind (and knowing that she was going to be a little bit older this time)?

Samantha Kim is an extraordinary, sophisticated talent—a burgeoning polymath.

In addition to acting (this was her first film role) her love is dancing and she’s been winning awards across the country. When Jacqueline joined me in the writing process to script the feature, she was tuned in to Sam’s proclivities from our experience on the short, and we agreed we would bring in her love for dancing into Jules’s character.

As we honed in on the precociousness of Jules for the feature, I hoped to pay attention to how much of this dystopic world Jules felt was commonplace, and also what she was learning. We then delved deeper to explore how that world disappointed her. I warned Sam that she would have a lot more preparation to do for the feature, and she absolutely rose to the occasion.


Advantageous makes use of my personal-favorite life-extension pipe dream, the neuron map transplanted, FireWire style, onto a new brain in a new body, like Ray Kurzweil’s “mind uploading.” I’m curious if you began from a place of curiosity about the implications of this sort of technology, or if it became useful after you came up with the central premise and decided to explore it? More generally, as you were building out the world of the film, did the technology serve the needs of the story, or was the story suggested by the technology?

The idea arrived in my mind in an isolated moment of inspiration. I was exploring a story of moving consciousnesses from body to body… and then it just clicked into this mother-daughter-body-life improvement allegory.

One of the deeper concerns that I wrestle with in my work is how women around the world are encouraged to change themselves in many ways to carve out a place and survive. Sometimes this means they are changing their appearance to appeal to those more powerful than themselves. I’ve observed countless women struggle with these pressures, and of course experienced some of this myself. It’s funny though because, when you think about it, changing one’s appearance seems like the lowest hanging fruit. But an obsession with surface appearance can take years, maybe decades, away from personal development, which could have greater importance in the long term.

I know that this is a male struggle as well, but I felt there was an urgent need for exploration of the female perspective on these issues. So to answer your questions, I think the technology ultimately served the needs of the story.

 


Like Spike Jonze with Her, you’ve made a naturalistic, relationship-based drama that shows people dealing with the implications of speculative technologies practically, directly, and personally—it fits quite interestingly into the sci-fi genre. Is that just your sensibility at work, or does something about our everyday lives today make this approach more natural than it once might have been? Or, for that matter, are there films you’d point to as evidence that I’m overstating the uniqueness of your approach?

I think we all enjoyed making a film with visual effects that wasn’t so much about the visual effects.

The sci-fi films and series I’ve loved and binge-watched all have an emotional component to them that inspired my own sensibilities. In Ghost in the Shell, Battlestar Galactica, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Blade Runner, you spend time with characters who have human concerns in spite of their manufactured bodies. BSG also manages to shed light on our present-day conflicts by re-casting ostracized minorities with humans, hybrids, and cylons.

In Advantageous our emphasis on naturalism and relationships pre-dated my exposure to Her, which I enjoyed. But my intent from the beginning with the short was to make a cerebral and dramatic film, influenced by period dramas and films with chamber piece sensibilities like The Age of Innocence—just two or three people in a room talking about surviving and maneuvering in the socioeconomic strata to move up the ladder.

I saw Gwen’s struggles both as a professional woman and a parent as a familiar journey to which we all relate, that would inevitably perpetuate into the future in different forms. The idea of a “singularity” and its shifting and evolving value systems would push people like Gwen to make choices most people could not imagine making today.

The James Urbaniak character makes a “brain in a jar” reference familiar from Cartesian sci-fi flicks from around the turn of the millennium, and the legal disclaimer which Gwen is seen reading at one point uses language about a “soul” being transferred between “vessels,” and the film’s final act considers the degree to which an individual consciousness, and things like love and memory, are intertwined with a material body subject to decline and death. It got me thinking about the intersection between Buddhism and face-transplant and body-swapping movies, from Seconds and The Face of Another to Freaky Friday (I’m serious!); in these movies, and movies that deal with plastic surgery, from The Skin I Live In all the way down to the nose job in Tamara Drewe, there’s always this question of whether there’s this pure integral piece of a person that continues despite the malleability, contingency and impermanence implicit in the passage of time and the way of all flesh. I’m curious about how consciously you thought through the movie in terms of spirituality.

I love that you thought of Freaky Friday and Seconds. Seconds filled me with a terrible discomfort. It’s like watching someone live through an awkward lie, but feeling that he should know better. For the through-line of Advantageous, I felt there was the possibility the soul of Gwen lurked somewhere in the memories that were being transferred, however I didn’t commit to the idea entirely. I felt that if this was happening to me, I would not know anything about my “soul” for sure, and no one would know anything for sure.

But it was also important to me to investigate, through Gwen, whether the act of choosing to change your surface appearance somehow altered your inner qualities.

I wondered whether our self-respect might become altered for better or worse after we commit to a surface change. And does our respect for others increase or decrease if they don’t follow our example?

A much more plain way to put this: Do people who get cosmetic surgery feel good after the fact, and do they believe other people would have better lives if they followed suit? And then… is this a world we can be at peace with? Can we accept a world in which these concerns occupy so much of our energies and potential for productivity?