Jennifer Phang by Steve Macfarlane

The director of Advantageous on technology, childhood, and the market forces that shape family relations. 

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


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Still from Advantageous, 2015, directed by Jennifer Phang. Courtesy of the artist.

In the paranoid and heartbroken contours of Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, one can see today’s concerns refracted with crystalline clarity: whiz-kid precocity emboldened, understandably, in a generation reared as much by LCD screens as parents; a never-ending litany of brand-name products and procedures; a mysterious ongoing war that bursts the story’s neon New York bubble only intermittently; and all this with an alarming casualness. As in the heyday of paperback science, or “speculative,” fiction, Advantageous questions where society is heading by nudging these present-tense anxieties slightly into the future. Heroine Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) has to cope with her dismissal from her job as spokeswoman for a medical conglomerate. A single mother raising a hyperintelligent tween named Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation), Gwen finds that, even in a future liberated by technology, her options aren’t much different from any other woman’s in history. With increasing despair, she begins to explore life as an unemployed single parent, which culminates in an identity-switch that turns Advantageous into something closer to a horror movie.

The film is an expansion from the twenty-minute version featured in the Independent Television Service’s Futurestates project, an ongoing compendium of short, speculative sci-fi works by filmmakers such as J. P. Chan, Barry Jenkins, A. Sayeeda Clarke, and Alex Rivera. And, like Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, the film’s ideas-per-minute allow it to transcend its confining production value. This is not a work of cinema bound by overblown genre prerogatives: Phang gives Advantageous a nimble touch and a devastating conclusion, more a chamber drama of its milieu than anything remotely close to satire. It will be measured in coming years not for whiz-bang visuals or hoary monologues, but for its prescience.

Steve Macfarlane Did you shoot the short version intending to make this a feature? Or is it more that you were dissatisfied with the experience of putting the story in a twenty-minute container?

Jennifer Phang Actually, the process of making the short inspired the feature because of what I witnessed on set. There were nuances between characters, and Jacqueline’s performance was just so detailed. Layers and complexities I had planned for, but I knew they couldn’t survive in the short. While shooting, I was simplifying and protecting for the possibility of expansion. When I felt like the schedule would allow for it, I would let things go in a little more detailed way. It was somewhere in the middle of shooting when I realized the chemistry between Samantha and Jacqueline was too precious to be shortened.

SM Did their rapport feed your ideas for the feature? The movie hinges entirely on their chemistry, and they seem to have a strong working relationship as actors.

JP We cast them separately to begin with, based on their abilities. Jacqueline is a very experienced and thoughtful actor, and she brought out some beautiful things in her interactions with Samantha. As we started to expand into the feature, because Samantha was growing older, her sophistication was increasing by the minute. So, we challenged her character more, brought more savvy, and the idea is that there are highly precocious kids everywhere today—especially in New York. We were able to kind of build on our own understanding. As a character, Jules became a little bit more aware, a little bit more despairing, than in the short version.

SM It makes sense—your third act gets most of its dramatic oomph not just from things falling apart, but from Jules observing it though a kid’s eyes. Was Jacqueline your cowriter on both versions?

JP The reason I brought her on to cowrite the feature was because she expressed so much interest in the writing of the short. I could tell she was rarin’ to go, and with the schedule I was hoping for to get the feature off the ground, someone with her energy and passion would make a lot of sense. She’d written a slightly futuristic short of her own—it didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but her ideas were interesting. She came on after I had written the first draft. ITVS was more involved in developing the short.

SM Without being crass about your financials: Was there anything you had to fight for, in preparing the feature? Or was it smooth going after the acclaim of the twenty-minute version?

JP Well, it wasn’t too hard for me because Robert M. Chang, my producer, took on a lot of the burdens of financing: finding investors, showing the short around, getting actors like Ken Jeong and Jennifer Ehle involved. Actors, artists, and also parents really connecting with the purpose of this film and its underlying statement about the social condition of women. I think that’s where a lot of the passion came from; everybody who brought money through our Kickstarter, or a private equity investor, people who came on as cast or donated locations, everyone was responding to that potential of the short film.

SM As a filmmaker, do you enjoy the process of, say, making a very polished short and then doing a Kickstarter, and making the process as public as possible? Do you suffer any loss of enthusiasm for the material by the time you’ve reached the end of the road?

JP It’s hard to make an independent film to begin with—especially when it’s cast in a diverse way. It’s simply hard. Having the opportunity to quickly put this together with the assets that we had in the short version, and also the passion everyone had on set, then the response, it was enough to keep me going, enthusiastic in the exploration of this world. I couldn’t bring back everybody from the short film, mostly because of scheduling; some of the cast and crew had conflicts. So, the exploration of the material was fresh for people like Richard Wong, our cinematographer, or our production designer, Dara Wishingrad. From the special effects side—that process unto itself, of building a cityscape, that was all pleasant to do because it was an expansion. If I started from scratch entirely, it would have probably taken the same amount of time, you know what I mean? As a development opportunity, to be able to have that somewhat taken care of was great.

SM Tell me a little more about those creative choices—your SFX shots, your tableaux, this one kind of contorted skyscraper/sculpture the camera repeatedly returns to. The stuff you’re balancing this against feels very quotidian, and I mean that as a compliment: it feels like people actually live in this city, and that room-to-room it’s not that different from today. You’re not belaboring the alienness of this particular future.

JP I was confident that having a nostalgic aesthetic inside Gwen’s space made sense, because that’s how we exist today. Many of us continue to surround ourselves with older aesthetics, because it’s comforting—that idea of feeling like we’re creating a home, a warm place. That seemed to make sense to me, and it was key in supporting the dynamic, the chemistry, the feeling of love and family between Gwen and Jules. While we’re set in the future, it’s not that far away, right? It’s effective in that it’s relatable; it may actually be frightening to people. They can see what’s going on with Gwen as echoing something that may be going on in their lives—as parents, especially as mothers.

Generally, if you’re talking about sci-fi references and maybe clichés, anyone can draw from Blade Runner. There, some things are otherworldly and a lot of things are of today. It’s not like you try to make your apartment as high-tech as possible. Not everyone wants that aesthetic.

SM I’m glad you said “nostalgic” because I feel, as a practice—or maybe as an accidental philosophy—nostalgia is everywhere right now. I ask myself: Is it so simple as us pushing back against all this technology? Our infatuation with an image of the future? Do other films deal with that? Normally I feel like science fiction movies, the majority of which are really action pictures in drag, present a future that’s all good or all bad.

JP I agree that nostalgia is an attempt to deal with that anxiety. Technology does encourage us to fill our lives with more buttons to press, more things to click on. It does create a busyness that may not be healthy for some people. Good business for some; bad psychology for others. It’s detrimental to many people’s mental health—so yeah, as far as other films, I think maybe what you’re referring to is this: in the last ten or fifteen years of alternative filmmaking, there are these late-twenties to thirty-something male directors and filmmakers bringing a kind of childlike aesthetic to their narratives, looking through a young man’s lens or a young boy’s lens. Audiences respond to that because they love the idea of seeing things in a more innocent way, looking at mothers and fathers and relationships in an extremely innocent way. Somehow, by casting people into these roles—the dysfunctional parent, maybe a witch or whatever—that allows all of us to kind of make sense of things that terrify us.

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Director Jennifer Phang on the set of Advantageous. Photo by Qi Luo.

SM When I think about earlier projections of what the future is supposed to be like—that old joke of “I was promised jetpacks”—there’s this implicit assumption that humanity will rise to the occasion seamlessly.

JP Well, of course, there are a lot of dystopian films out there.

SM I just mean, Advantageous seems pitched squarely in the middle. There’s no supervillain, no save-the-world subplot, it’s just about the choices of one individual up against all these systems.

JP It’s the main character, but it’s also the people within the corporation providing her “opportunities” when she has no other opportunities. They’ve kind of cornered her into a choice, right? Every single person in the film is playing a role in creating the society that drives Gwen toward that choice. What we’re really looking at is her motive, the circumstances that lead her to believe that opting in to this technology is the right choice—that means her bosses, her supervisors, the other mothers she meets with, they’re all helping create a social fabric that tells Gwen that times are desperate, and she had better optimize herself. And it’s seductive, because it provides her with a quick solution. What I’m looking at, I guess, is something very true-to-life, where tech is marketed as a solution that makes sense, and it happens in a way that makes Gwen’s choice to opt-in an easy one. But it’s not trying to terrify you, make you hurt yourself or anything; these corporations don’t want you to melt down and be disillusioned. What they want is your choice to partner with them. (laughter) They want you to help them make money!

SM First-person corporate. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Jules asks her mother, “Are you going backward going forward?”

JP Right. Are we really going backward going forward? She’s talking about a kind of new traditionalist movement. She’s hinting at the idea that somewhere in society there’s been this reactionary change in people’s attitude toward women’s equality. To me, you can find words in modern society to rationalize pretty much any idea, right? You can decide the Confederate flag is not racist, because _____________. You can make that choice for yourself and find words on the Internet that support that idea. Rational thinking is abused, actually; people believe they can think rationally when, in fact, their evidence is based on lies.

The point is that underneath all the events of Gwen’s life, there’s this idea that the economy is better off if men stay in the workforce and women go home, to keep things in order. It’s based on some social engineering I think actually happened. I was told that in Cuba, during an economic crisis, there was this kind of division of labor and somehow people believed that, naturally, women should get out of the way of the workforce and be at home. I thought, what if we slip backward? What happens to working mothers who are single when men are prioritized in the workforce? What if women don’t want that—how will the economy accommodate that lifestyle choice? And I also, obviously, have a problem with the idea of gendered social engineering.

SM It sort of bespeaks of the tension between what they call “innovation,” which is forever going forward, and social progress, which, if I’m learning anything from reading the news, is much more fragile, more reversible. There seems a buried critique here: Gwen seems like what the company wanted at one point, but now they’re trying to find a next step. Is it the post-racial thing everyone’s been talking about for the last couple years? Can you talk about the film’s criticisms along these lines?

JP In my conversations with viewers, most people are picking up on the idea that we’re looking at some sort of critique. It’s definitely there; I’m not trying to hide it too much. But I’d say, yes, Gwen believed she was on the right track in terms of creating a good home and a secure space for her daughter to thrive. She had to diversify her skill set, so that meant she had to be multi-lingual, she was a great public speaker, she maintained her body, she thought she knew the company line, and she was just great at being there for the company and for Jules. She believed she was doing the right thing. I do wish there was a higher awareness or self-criticism within corporate America, who doesn’t? (laughter)

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Still from Advantageous, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

I think we all know that corporations can often choose to be agnostic or amoral—they’re not people, they’re made of people. So, the agenda is set by a group of people, but at some point the moral compass disappears. Maybe it’s the chairman, the true CEO, the owner, who drives a company’s behavior. If a company is too nice, it won’t survive, right? It seems like a losing battle in a sense, and that’s why I believe we need a generation of leaders who truly believe their company represents people. Those companies seem to disappear quickly, though. But I do believe a population can control its money by being saavy about what’s really going on within corporate decision-making. So, to answer your question, we are looking carefully at the way that people in power make their decisions, and we’re looking carefully at a near-oligarchical future ahead. Did I pronounce that right?

SM I think you knocked it out of the park. “Oligarchical” isn’t a word I use often enough. But then, what do you think of something like Uber, which is drawn up in the language of innovation and consumer empowerment, but—and this is just my personal impression—what’s high-tech about that company allows it to turn its employees into raw assets even more ruthlessly than something as elaborate as a physical, municipal-based cab company. The older company, unpleasant though it may be, has to make more difficult choices about how to treat its employees.

JP Absolutely. This model you’re talking about, it gives laypeople who work the sense of ownership while minimizing corporate risk and maximizing profit. The risk is on the people who feel that sense of ownership, and this idea of contracting, it’s a model becoming more and more common.

I have worked as a part-time instructor, and I feel like that experience reminds me, a lot, of what you’re talking about. It’s not as dangerous as driving a cab, but it’s this idea that we as individuals should feel lucky to have employers contracting us out, giving us some illusion of freedom. It’s a seductive model that should soon collapse, I hope, as people become aware of its problems. Here’s the other thing, though: I spent some time in China recently, and if you know what a fractal is and you see these patterns and the way money flows and companies are structured… Well, I think the United States and the Western world like to pat themselves on the back for their sense of compassion, both for the individual and the working class. People pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Those ideals have worked for hundreds of years, but I think they’re being threatened. The Western ideal of “the working man” or “the company man” is totally threatened, and that’s what’s going on with Gwen, too. Market forces are hurting her. Now, I have no particular solution. I’m not an economist or a world leader, but I can say that I think we need to look at where our priorities are, at what kind of world we want for our kids. We embrace the competitiveness of globalization, but if we embrace technology just because it’s technology, or progress just because it’s called “progress,” then we’re forgetting about the things our country and our families were built on. Morality has a place in the future. We have to remember that.

If we have no compassion for those in poor working conditions, especially in other countries, we’re hurting ourselves. Without that awareness, as consumers, we create a world economy that may, basically, take away our jobs. Does that make sense? If this is gonna be a globalized economy, we’ll have to care about the people making our technology, too—take care of those people outside our borders.

SM One of the things that’s really striking about the world you’ve created is that the kids in Advantageous speak with a higher velocity and a greater sophistications about things. Maybe this is conservative-minded to say, but one would hope their kids wouldn’t have to worry about those things. Not yet, anyway.

JP This is exactly what I’m talking about: What’s the idea of a childhood? Most of Western civilization just loves the idea of a protected, idealistic childhood, filled with fairy tales and magic, and I love that too. I’ve experienced both sides. I had a very pragmatic childhood, and yet I was able to escape into books and have that magical childhood, too—a first-world and developing-nation experience as a kid. To clarify, my mother was an immigrant from Vietnam; we lived in Malaysia when I was younger, and we experienced privilege there, in what was a developing nation, and hardship later, here in the United States. Having lived in New York, one of the inspirations for the film was seeing really sophisticated young kids tackling big ideas in a public way on the subway, and that’s exciting, but it’s also a little bit sad. They get so stressed out, so early.

At the same time, it reflects the same value system you might’ve experienced in Asia, with kids losing hope and hurting themselves, at a very young age, because if they do poorly on a standardized test, some kids will come close to ending their lives. They can take that so seriously. It’s important for me that parents and kids are both aware that some of our value systems are constructed by ourselves, but we can’t all have the same path towards happiness. In a weird way that’s a dangerous thing to say, too, because you can see where that statement could be manipulated or appropriated. It’s hard to speak. (laughter) I do wish more kids in this world were a little bit more innocent, and wouldn’t it be nice if we, as adults, could embrace some of the systems of the ideals we had in childhood and be consistent with them? This was my biggest catharsis as a filmmaker, working on Advantageous and living in New York—the idea that I really, really, believe in my quote-unquote progressive ideals, and believe those ideals deserve a place in our future.

 

Advantageous is now available on Netflix.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including SlantThe L, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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