Watch out – spoilers about.
“The Best Sci-Fi Film of 2015 is Here – And It’s Not ‘Mad Max'” read the headline of a Business Insider article one summer day.
Whaaaat?! You mean to tell me that MM:FR wasn’t the only SF film released this year that dealt with feminist themes? That another filmmaker, a woman named Jennifer Phang, also wrote (along with actress Jaqueline Kim) and directed a movie about a woman’s struggle against an unfair society (note: this is not to say Mad Max: Fury Road is a bad film. I enjoyed it very much. But it shouldn’t be the only sf film to address feminist issues. We need more films like this and Mad Max)?
Yes, Advantageous, starring Jaqueline Kim and Ken Jeong, is about a future where the economy is in decline, jobs are hard to find, a good education is achieved by the lottery instead of enrollment, a majority of the homeless population is female and infertility is at an all-time high. But unlike Mad Max, which shows us a desolate post apocalyptic wasteland, this unnamed futuristic city by all appearances is pleasing to look at. One of its citizens is Gwen Koh (Jaqueline Kim), a Korean-American woman who works at the lucrative Center For Advanced Health And Living as a spokesperson. All she wants in life is to give her only daughter (Samantha Kim) a bright future. She will stop at nothing to make sure Jules gets into the most prestigious school in the country…
But there’s one problem: she’s about to lose her job because the company wants a new spokeswoman who’s younger and more “racially ambiguous”. The only employment she can get at her age is that of an egg donor. This is laughable because Gwen is only in her forties and is a very beautiful and intelligent woman.
There’s only one other solution for Gwen. Try out this new experiment where she can transfer her consciousness into another body. However, for a year she will have to deal with constant pain and take shots to help her keep breathing. There’s also a more serious side effect that’s not revealed until later in the film.
Before undergoing the procedure, Gwen visits her estranged cousin, Lily, (Jennifer Ikeda) and her husband, Han (Ken Jeong) for help. It’s at this moment in the film we learn of Gwen’s dark secret: she and Han had an affair years ago and he is Jules father. Gwen has been able to stay out of their lives since then, but now she needs them more than ever but Lily refuses because she and Han have children of their own.
After their last Christmas together, Gwen and Jules pick out a body and Gwen undergoes the procedure. Due to the success of Gwen 2.0 (Freya Adams), customer demands for the procedure have skyrocketed.
But not all is successful for Gwen’s and Jules’ relationship as mother and daughter. Gwen 2.0 can’t seem to rekindle that emotional bond with Jules she had before the transfer. Her memories are slowly fading away as Gwen’s original consciousness ceased to exist during the procedure. There’s no way for them to continuously transfer her old memories into her new body. To all extents and purposes, Gwen Koh is dead.
But not all is lost. Lily and Han have seen footage of the new Gwen, had a change of heart and decided that they will help her and Jules after all. They decide to meet at the park for a picnic where Jules will meet her “new”, extended family for the first time.
In an age of genre films where big budget special effects, explosions, violence and fast paced storytelling have become the norm, Advantageous feels like a breath of much-needed fresh air. It doesn’t have any action sequences (The only action scene in the entire movie is where a flying “car” crashes into a building as an act of terrorism. The only reaction is one of weariness from the characters because terrorism has become too commonplace). It’s not loud and boisterous. It’s quiet and reflective. It takes its time. You also have to really pay attention to “clues” as to how this society works. One scene has Gwen sitting in the park talking to her mother on the phone. She notices a teenage girl in the distance wearing a strange mask. Behind a tree she changes her clothes. She takes off the mask with a different identity. Is this a mask sold by the Center For Advanced Health And Living? Is changing one’s appearance the norm?
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story would’ve devolved into some “conspiracy thriller” where Gwen would’ve confronted the company she works for, demanded her old body back, possibly at gunpoint, transferred back into Gwen 1.0 and lived happily ever after. You won’t find that here because it would undermine the message of the story. There’s no sex and very little profanity. Most importantly, it uses the future to warn us about the present. After all isn’t that what science fiction is all about?
Another refreshing aspect of the film is its diversity in its cast. There’re only four men with speaking roles and most of the cast is made up of women of different ethnic backgrounds. Unlike others who’ve done nothing but criticize Hollywood for lack of inclusion in genre films, Phang and Kim, took the initiative and made their own sci-fi movie where the protagonist wasn’t a white male. Most of the main cast is of Asian descent, yet their problems are not related to a specific cultural identity. But most importantly the film uses science fiction to address current issues relating to women’s rights which is why it’s just as good as Mad Max.
Maybe even better.
Winner of the 2015 Sundance Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision and only available on Netflix.
Gwen (Jaqueline Kim) and her daughter (Samantha Kim) enjoy a quiet moment.
Jennifer Ehle plays Isa Cryer, the head of the Center For Advanced Health And Living.