Sundance Hong Kong 2015 Review: ADVANTAGEOUS, Underachieving Sci-Fi For Tiger Mums
Jennifer Phang's ambitious sci-fi drama presents some intriguing ideas about identity and sacrifice in a uniquely female context, but she invests her budget into the wrong elements, and is unable to fashion her final film into anything particularly engaging.
In the near future, the economic divide has grown exponentially, with new skyscrapers providing little more than shade for the countless starving masses. Even for the wealthy elite, it is women who are bearing the brunt of this climate, with popular opinion swaying towards them returning to the home, rather than see millions of men put out of work.
Gwen Ko (Jacqueline Kim) is a successful spokesperson for "The Center for Advanced Health and Living", an aspirational business peddling the notion of trading bodies to remain youthful. When she is deemed too old for her position and laid off, Gwen is no longer able to pay the fees to get her brilliant young daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) into a top tier prep school. Therefore, she takes drastic action and volunteers to become a test subject at The Center, a move that will allow her to keep her job.
Filmed in and around San Francisco with a largely Asian cast, Advantageous addresses a number of issues facing women in contemporary society, both professionally and personally. Unsurprisingly, the film has a very Asian attitude towards parenting and success, but should speak strongly to women from all walks of life, as they are persistently held to a different standard than their male counterparts. It should also be noted that the film's only caucasian characters, in the forms of Jennifer Ehle and James Urbaniak, are the closest thing the film has to villains. Not that there is anything wrong with this per se, but no attempt is made to explain or excuse it.
The film works best as a family drama, while its sci-fi elements are used as little more than a facilitating device in order to explore these themes. It is frustrating to see a film such as this, which clearly as a budget for effects work, squander them on adequately rendered but largely unnecessary exteriors instead of detailing the central body-swap process in more detail. A staple of many science fiction stories over the decades, themes of eternal youth and everlasting life are largely ignored in favour of more intimate, personal conflicts surrounding identity and relationships.
Adapted from a short film, and co-written by director Phang and lead actress Kim, Advantageous keeps its story too small, never fleshing out its world to answer even the most rudimentary questions about how the central characters arrived at their predicament. It also bogs down the central conflict with unnecessary backstory regarding Jules' father, none of which really compliments the forward thrust of the story in any meaningful way. As a result, Advantageous proves a frustrating experience for sci-fi fans, and a confused and unsatisfying one for those looking to invest in a strong mother-daughter relationship.