Jennifer Phang is a co-writer and director of Advantageous. I saw this film at the Walnut Creek International Short Film Festival on June 8, 2013; it was my favorite short. Based on feedback from people who have seen Advantageous, Jennifer decided to turn it into a full-length movie. Moved by my own experience after I saw it, I wanted to interview Jennifer. I had the pleasure and opportunity to do so at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco on June 27, 2013.
About the film, Advantageous:
“Gwen, a gifted corporate spokeswoman, must decide whether to undergo a radical medical procedure in order to keep her lucrative job and give her daughter, Jules, her only chance for a better future. Set in a dystopic 2041, Advantageous is the new sci-fi feature film from award-winning Sundance director Jennifer Phang (Half-Life) and co-written with and starring Independent Spirit Award-nominated actor Jacqueline Kim (Charlotte Sometimes) and marks the return of Obie Award-winning actor James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros.) to an indie dramatic role.”
M. Terry Bowman (MTB): Movies appeal to different people. What kind of person would like Advantageous?
Jennifer Phang (JP): Women of varying generations and parents, especially moms have expressed a passionate interest for this story. One of our most passionate supporters who surfaced recently was a woman CEO of the Celerity school district in LA. Vielka saw the short film of Advantageous and offered up the 13 schools in her district as possible locations for the feature. It was kind of a big deal when we were connected with her because we realized, in speculating about the future of public schools and education costs, we were talking about something very present on people’s minds. Vielka is always examining the problems with the public school system and trying to create an alternative. I’m also finding that women are passionate about this project because they understand that there’s a strange tension inside of us when we’re negotiating how much we must rely on our personal appearance to ‘make it’ in this world.
Another great thing is that sci-fi aficionados are getting behind the project. We have a number of supporters who saw the short at Fantastic Fest. They liked that we are addressing social issues in an allegorical way. The story provides something cerebral to chew on, but also provides some escapism because it transports us to a different time. Most of the people who watch the film end up saying, “This is so connected to me, I relate so much to this,” despite the fact that the story is supposed to take place in the future.
MTB: That’s exactly how I reacted, too, each time I’ve seen it, which is amazing. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
I was living in New York at the time — it was my second year in New York. I was regularly confronted by the class divide. That helped me to understand the pursuit for security and survivor mentality. I saw highly-educated kids in New York, who felt able to take their privilege for granted. I observed a lot of “power moms” strategizing about how to make the best future for their kids. This contrasted strongly with all the teens who were trying to get by, performing in the subways.
I was also inspired to write Advantageous by my mother’s own journey as a young immigrant. There were times when my parents had to be separated when they had to take jobs in different countries and due to visa issues. So she had to operate as a single mom in the United States and it was extremely hard for her. There were times when she was working double shifts, taking me to swim practice, sleeping in the car while I swam, driving me home, going to sleep, and going to work.
She would always tell me all this was really for me, it was all to make sure that I had a future. My mother’s had great support from my father, but there were extensive periods when she was alone with me due to immigration and work challenges.
There were other inspirations. I’ve had a hard time connecting with women who were highly concerned with their appearance. Mostly because it reminded me of my own concerns, and I needed to escape that. I also lived in Los Angeles for some time and where there was a lot of emphasis on “presentation” of the self. But I’ve grown up and connected with many more women. I’m very happy about that.
My concern with the problems of objectification has been long-lasting. As a woman, along with the day-to-day struggles of trying to survive in this world, there are added hours and hours of maintenance that you’re worried about in order to keep up with other women.
Some of the most inspiring films by and about women come from Europe. In these films it is just taken for granted that a woman can be a source of power, and even if they have moments of weakness, they’re not purely victimized. In these films, a female character in a weak position is just a human being in a weak position. You don’t feel a patronizing gaze on a “poor dear woman” or “poor sweet girl.”
Jacqueline and I want to look at an empowered woman who has many skills, who’s trying to be the perfect mother and starts out in a pretty good spot career-wise. But even with all the educational and professional advantages she begins with, she soon feels incredible pressure to compromise herself to make sure her child does not have to compromise herself in a very dark future.
MTB: Why should people support this film?
JP: This is the kind of sci-fi that helps inspire thinking and national dialogue. Film is so powerful because the way it changes its viewers is unconscious. If you watch enough films where a woman is treated in a more two-dimensional way, at some point — even as a woman — you become so jaded that you accept that as the reality whether or not it is the reality.
People usually support the film because they want relevant art out in the world. Asian-Americans appreciate it because it’s a complex portrayal of an Asian mother and the general audience, Asian-American and beyond, also connect with it because they have mothers who have sacrificed a great deal for them.
There have been several articles over the last week talking about how women’s stories are quickly disappearing from cinema. Lately it has felt like women’s stories in the mainstream have been limited to Sex and the City, The Hunger Games, and the Twilight series. Many of those films were directed by men. It’s a question of whether there needs to be more diversified women’s voices out in the world right now…I would say, probably, “Yep.”
MTB: Yes, absolutely.
JP: Because women’s faces and voices are disappearing and the crisis in education is here. We all know it. Students are slipping through the cracks. It’s a call to pay attention to that. The message of the feature version of the film will be more about community and how allowing for forgiveness and nurturing each other might just help things improve. I’m really lucky to live around San Francisco in the Bay Area, but there are people in this world who are just squeezing it for all it has. They believe they have to win the game in order to survive, to give the best to their children.
MTB: Which is not community-oriented.
JP: Corporations have the power to use marketing to profit from various ideas of an American community, but when you look at the bottom line, they’re often being hypocritical. (The film addresses this as well.) It’s kind of a crazy world right now, but I think that film can inspire people to look inside themselves and say, “Do I want to be a more compassionate human being or not? Do I want a world where a mother has to make the ultimate sacrifice to make sure her daughter doesn’t have to have the same kind of experience?”
MTB: I totally understand which is why I’m here. I’m trying to do my part for the community of women.
JP: Thank you, Terry.
MTB: Since you’ve had this shown at so many different places, was there a screening that particularly touched you?
JP: We anchored a fantastic screening at the Walnut Creek Short Film Festival too, which was in my hometown. I went to high school there. It was wonderful to screen the film for a suburban audience and feeling their appreciation. There were many moms and dads and grandparents at that screening, and based on their feedback I really felt we had a verifiable emotional impact. The film resonated with them because it was about parenthood and sacrifice.
Most recently, we had a really good experience at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, put on by Visual Communications. When we won a prize in the LA Asian Pacific, that felt amazing. We were programmed in a series of short films that were all about a woman’s love for another. We were the anchor for that. By the time they got to our film the audience was highly sensitized to women’s issues. It really explored the love of women, not just mothers, but just love, just devotion. It was programmed so well by Eseel Borlasa who has become a great supporter of our film, too.
It was at the DGA in LA so the screen was pristine. I was sitting up closer than usual and every detail in our actors’ faces — every subtle emotional shift — came across beautifully. All of our producers were in tears, which is unusual when you’re a big part of the process.
We had been close to the film, promoting it, getting people to understand it was going to become a feature and that needed help. But when we actually sat and watched the film and we found ourselves moved, we were so surprised that we had that objective distance. That the power was there for us to feel. Jacqueline who was the star and also my co-writer was at a play in Yale. It was all of us witnessing her vulnerability on screen and she wasn’t there to enjoy the fact that her focus and devotion was coming out beautifully.
MTB: Wow. That’s a great story.
JP: It was a good screening! (Laughs)
MTB: Based on the feedback, written or verbal that you’ve received, what are a few typical words people have used to describe it?
JP: Relevant. Touching. Beautifully-acted. (Laughs)
MTB: How have people’s reactions to the film shaped the way you’ll turn it into a full-length movie?
JP: When we premiered the short film online, our ardent supporters wanted to get to know Jules and Gwen more and they wanted to see our present reality reflected and projected into the future.
I’m imagining a possible future where our country is in a crisis state. What I was doing was projecting a future where it became where attacks were commonplace, so much so that the girls weren’t even fazed by it. For me the question to myself is, if a nation is draining the resources toward the elite, will we end up in a state where the crisis is so extreme that major attacks are going to happen more and more from inside our borders? I wrote this into the feature before the Boston attacks. A part of me has been thinking about taking it out after the attack. So far, I haven’t, because I think the concept I’m working with is relevant. I need to give it some thought.
MTB: Besides Kickstarter, what are some other ways that people can help Advantageous move forward?
JP: We could really use some frequent flyer miles right now because a lot of us have to get out to New York to shoot. Beyond that it really comes about getting the word out. Mostly because the bigger films have very large publicity and advertising budgets from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. So we need help getting the word out on a grass roots level. It’s our only hope, which is why I’m so very grateful that you’re here.
MTB: I was really inspired as I watched live on my computer what happened in Austin two nights ago. I cried and was just grateful that women showed up because sometimes I think women don’t speak up enough.
I was inspired by your film. I think that’s why it affected me. I went into the short film festival not knowing what to expect and then when your film showed I really was just blown away by so many aspects of it. There are not enough films written by women, directed by women, or about women. We don’t have enough good role models for women in film. There are not enough role models for girls either. That’s the other part that I really loved about Advantageous is the relationship, this mother and daughter who happened to be intelligent and wasn’t obsessed with pink (no offense to pink). She had interests and was smart.
JP: That’s really energizing.
MTB: Thank you so much for your time, Jennifer.
JP: Thank you.
Fun Facts about Jennifer Phang
Born: Berkeley, CA at Alta Bates Hospital.
Degree: MFA, American Film Institute.
Roles: daughter, sister, filmmaker, writer, director, producer, instructor, teacher, film house resident at the San Francisco Film Society, mentor.
Activities she’ll do for fun and to unwind: camping, Bikram yoga, playing poker, watching anime.