‘Advantageous’: A dystopian for the elite
When I watched Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous (2015), I was supposed to be working, finishing up a deck to be presented that afternoon. That day, the US had pulled out of the Paris climate accord. Over 230,000 Americans lay dead from a disease that a monstrous man bolstered by a monstrous party had let ravage the country. With blood still pouring out from the wounds inflicted, they were busy with their next task—crying wolf at the vote that would have them out. All this had put me in such a state that work was unimaginable, so as I often do, I sought refuge in film. The deck would get finished later.
In retrospect, this was the perfect setting in which to watch Advantageous, burdened with inconsequential work at the precipice of dystopia, or perhaps already in it. The film takes place in a “not-so-distant” future of water rations, of powerful technology companies acting as surveillance states, of muffled cries heard through thin walls. Meanwhile, those with power and resources are too preoccupied with maintaining their own status to worry about the collapsing world around them. In short, it takes place in a future much like our present. We follow one of these quasi-elites, Gwen, played by Jacqueline Kim, the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living. This bland sounding mega-corporation has developed a process by which people can transfer their consciousness into another body; plastic surgery, but make it metaphysical. Just as this new product is set to launch, however, Gwen is told that the company wants to reach a wider, younger audience. In other words, she is being fired because she’s too old, and too not-white.
Unfortunately for Gwen, her daughter, Jules— a precocious kid prone to bouts of existential pessimism—has just been accepted into an expensive prep school. The paralytic class structure has made it such that Gwen believes that the only way to secure her daughter’s future is to get her to attend this school. Social mobility is a game that requires buy-in out of reach for most, and the job market is thin. So she makes the decision to try the new treatment, to transfer her consciousness into a younger, whiter body and regain her old job as spokesperson. This decision, and its after effects, lay at the heart of the film. It is a metaphysical question, a realized thought experiment in the lineage of the late Derek Parfit that asks what personal identity, this self we call an “I” really is. It is a commentary on the way female bodies, especially bodies of color, are constantly pressured to transform, and the way these transformations are often packaged as liberation and empowerment by a marketing complex looking to drive the bottom line. It is a depiction of the way human subjects are reduced to objects under capitalism, tools to be replaced, spare parts to be sold when they’re worn down. It is all of these things at once.
The film has much to say, but as a result, it bends under its own weight. The film is pulled in too many directions, and at times becomes too unfocused to reach any satisfying point with regards to its thematic pursuits. In part, this is a function of largely attempting to approach its deep existential questions through the “human” lens by having these questions play out within the domain of Gwen and Jules’ relationship. Had their relationship been rendered in a more nuanced fashion, this could have worked. But the relationship felt too cerebral to illuminate the film’s philosophical issues in the way art, literature, and film can at its best. One has the sense that the relationship existed for the sake of the thought experiment, rather than for the sake of the characters, their histories, hopes, and motivations. If one thinks I’m being too harsh here, know that I don’t underestimate this challenge— this critique is one that applies to Advantageous as much as it does Sartre’s Nausea or the perennial favorite Black Mirror.
Further, though the film spotlights Gwen’s status as a victim of accelerated capitalism, it doesn’t quite explore the ways in which she is the perpetrator. Her own parasitic relationship to the socio-economically disadvantaged, her own work in promulgating a treatment that enables racist, ableist, eugenicist attitudes is largely kept in the background. She is not a hero by any stretch, but the film chooses to mostly render the damage she has caused in personal, familial terms, only gesturing towards the broader ecological and economic collapse that is wrought around her, by her.
In all, this gets at the core feeling I had while watching this film. Which is that it felt like a dystopia dreamt up by someone in the Silicon Valley “upper middle class,” a sci-fi version of the infamous article “We make $325,000 a year and feel we don’t have enough.” The future depicted here was simultaneously too optimistic (where’s the floods, the fires, the viruses?) and too focused on the superfluous (prep school admissions, getting your resume read by an AI rather than a person) to feel revelatory. Often it just felt like a game of recognition, where the satisfaction came from identifying the ways in which current trends— particularly those afflicting the privileged class— would evolve into this future.
Thematically, there is a brilliant, sharp, prescient film here. And director Jennifer Phang sharply renders the deep, isolating sadness that this form of capitalism engenders. Moreover, she also touches on the absurdity of it all, and perhaps this is the point of the superfluous concerns that drive these characters. The absurdity a marketing team demanding certain bodies to reach certain audiences, the absurdity of a woman lamenting her job prospects as a girl sleeps in the bushes, the absurdity of a girl feeling like the only path to a livable future lies in the school she goes to as a teenager, the absurdity of a worker worried about a Powerpoint deck in the middle of a global pandemic and a fascist leader. Oh wait… maybe she was on to something after all.
Rating: 3 / 5
Advantageous is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #19 on that list.
Next week, Michael Kang’s The Motel (2005).