Months before I watched Advantageous, I was warned by a friend to ensure that I carved time out of my schedule for aftercare. "Be careful," she told me, "you’re going to want someone around you afterwards to help soothe the sting." I couldn’t understand her warning then because it’s impossible to describe how quiet the existentialist horror of Advantageous is; it’s not the sort of thing you can really warn a person about without unpacking your own personal fears and laying them bare for anyone to see.
The film, written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang (who also serves as director), manages to somehow be stunning and thoughtful and soul-destroying all at the same time. It grapples with all the basic fears that drive a modern science fiction dystopia—What defines humanity? What happens when technological advancement means ethics are merely a mild casualty? What happens to the citizen of a technocratic capitalistic society when they are no longer able to function within it? What happens when consciousness is no longer defined by the body that constrains it?—and, instead of doing what the majority of science fiction films tend to do, which is to make the anxieties of an inevitable society larger than life (and add in explosions to make this thrilling), Advantageous returns these issues to the commonplace spaces from which they arise, turning science fiction mundane and inexorable.
The film opens in a city not too far into the future from where the Global North is now. The streets are large and clean, there are parks, technology for communication is everywhere, and the buildings are the same inside as our own, with vague futuristic facades. It’s stunning and modern and sterile, and it’s the ideological poster-place for a city that every nation in the world wants to have. I feel like I've seen this city before. There’s a radical faction that is attacking the rich majority in the city and the occasional bomb explodes, but this is far away and not truly a concern. There’s surveillance and there are drones. In this, the film is exactly what I’ve been led to expect from the reviews I’ve read: a low budget feminist science fiction dystopia. I let myself expect the usual: that this radical faction will soon become the main thrust of the story. I’m wrong.
Instead, the film’s narrative follows the life of Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) and her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim). Gwen works for the Center for Advanced Health and Living and Jules excels above and beyond what should reasonably be expected of any child, but nevertheless struggles to be placed at "the right sort" of school. Gwen is quietly competent but worried that she’s being underpaid for her position and has concerns about what this might mean for her future as she ages. Unemployment is rife and people are more inclined to employ men because they are considered naturally more aggressive and do not have the same option seen to be enjoyed by women to "simply return" to their usual domestic spaces. As a single, working woman, I shuddered at how reasonably this is laid out. Gwen as a single mother takes this stoically.
The film’s first volley against my defences was Jules’s quiet questioning of why she even exists. Jules is very much still a child in this film, but that childhood is already sloughing off her. Her life is defined primarily by her ability to study and her extracurricular activities—the forcible moulding of a working citizen. It’s clear that this is a child’s lament that will never find resolution and will follow her into adulthood—because if there already isn’t a place for her in these public spaces, if she cannot excel enough to be recognised as worthy even of what her world currently considers to be basic (that is, an academic credential of the right sort), then what point is there to her existence? It’s not even a jab at our struggling contemporary education systems. A jab would be easier to handle. This is more about the sort of ambition and talent that hurts so much the worse for the fact that they cannot matter without the connections to see them to fruition—and Gwen lacks these.
The question of the value of human existence isn’t answered at this point—Gwen explains that Jules is special and kind, and that everything she takes up will matter somehow—but the film only allows a momentary respite before it applies the same question to Gwen’s own life, and the lives of the many homeless women we start to see in the edges of the film. They live hidden in gardens, they fish for food in the river, they sleep on park benches. They’re suddenly everywhere in the film, the soft sobbing of neighbours in the flats above and below part of the backdrop of Gwen and Jules’s lives, drowned out by the piano music Jules plays off her tablet, echoed in the growing terror Gwen feels when she loses her own job. Jules’s questioning of the worth of her existence is possible to dismiss at her tender years because Gwen validates her and her possible future. Youth is inextricably linked to hope in these desperate scenarios; Gwen’s own existence is much harder to justify.
"Surely there’s some worth to humanity?" Gwen asks later, echoing Jules’s existentialist fears, as she discovers that her job options are currently restricted to egg-donation and nothing else. Most of the jobs she held as a young woman are now the province of technology. In a reference to contemporary fears within education systems, she cannot return to a previous job that involved teaching because teaching is now entirely tech-based. We’re informed that technology far exceeds a human’s ability to suitably convey information—a terrifying nod to current conditions in academia that increasingly see human interaction minimized in favour of recorded lectures or information provided online. It’s the democratization of information re-corporatized because that information is worthless without the cachet of the right school. And even given those, inherent sexism might see all this effort as pointless anyway if participation within capitalism becomes impossible for women.
This seems like a singular moment of horror—and believe you me, I was already struggling to breathe through the sheer panic this scenario was causing me. But the film spirals it out yet further. The helpful "man" Gwen communicated with at the recruitment center is revealed to be an artificial construct that is offended by her questioning of humanity’s worth over technology. A thunderclap of connection between the film’s various themes and its dystopian setting snaps into place, uniting in one moment the omnipresent surveillance technology, the artificial construct’s ability to pass the Turing Test, and the issues of sexism, commercialism, and ageism that have so far been driving the story. Technology is revealed to be just as petty as the society that designed it.
It’s the small moments in Advantageous that hit the hardest. There’s something viscerally numbing about seeing a woman pay for a quiet padded cell within which to cry in privacy and without repercussions; to know that this intense, quiet misery is also co-opted into capitalism; to know that without the "safety" of a cell, even this would be used against her; to know that her child can’t hear her cry here and therefore begin to worry that her very existence is cause for concern. It’s as close to self-care as Gwen comes in the film, and perhaps the most fixed image of this film in my memory—the fear of crying where you can be judged for it, where the repercussions of a loss of control spiral out across everything you are and do. It speaks so strongly to contemporary concerns about depression, the current stigma that surrounds it, and how hard people work at hiding it because of how easily it can be mobilized against them in their workplace or outside of it.
In another soul-wrenching moment, Gwen reaches out to her mother in desperation, asking for money to tide her through the next three months while she job hunts. Everything seems normal until abruptly it’s not. Gwen’s mother makes her support conditional on her husband meeting Jules, and Gwen insists that she would die before she allows that to happen. The situation feels like it snaps into focus because everything about this signals abuse to me, specifically child abuse, and Gwen’s mother doesn’t ease my concerns in the slightest. "God has forgiven him," she claims, praying over Gwen’s refusal in her hope that Gwen may someday come to understand her own "sin" of withholding forgiveness from them, denying "the family" its chance to heal. Later, just after I’ve had enough time to forget, the radio announces, as Gwen watches Jules complete her homework in the living room, that the number of child prostitutes has greatly increased in this climate of unemployment, and it all floods back. Advantageous never spells anything out because it doesn’t have to; the consequences of these decisions are clear.
Her mother isn’t the only family Gwen attempts to contact. She goes to see her cousin, Lily (Jennifer Ikeda), and her husband, Han (Ken Jeong), who is Jules’s father. I remember expecting this to be about hush money, but in fact it’s made clear that Lily has known about the affair for a while. In an abrupt overturning of expectations, the scene doesn’t have Lily blame Gwen for the affair—"Why would you help me? I slept with your husband." "And he slept with you."—but does have Lily blame her for cutting them out of her life and refusing to allow them in. And, just as reconciliation seems possible, Gwen reveals that Jules exists and is the product of the affair, and Lily crumbles. "I’ve been trying to get you to heal this family," Lily says, "but when you show up you just bring more pain." Knowing what we know of Gwen’s relationship with her parents, it’s hard not to flinch at this, even as Gwen accepts it stoically as her due.
In so many ways, this scene is a perfect encapsulation of Advantageous’s feminism because it never tips itself into two women fighting over a man; instead, it’s driven home that this is very much about the relationship between Gwen and Lily, with Han a culpable outlier who is being held responsible for his own actions and choices. He doesn’t matter in that scene as much as Lily and Gwen and the broken relationship between them. This is true for the entirety of the film—men largely form a narrative backdrop as its focus is always on the women and their bonds to each other, even as the effects of patriarchy (sexism and ageism in particular) affect their lives and decisions. As a result, the men in Advantageous aren’t the enemy; they’re struggling within the same system and with similar decisions, though they’re better positioned to deal with these.
Driven to desperation by a dwindling bank balance, no job prospects, and the upcoming tuition fees for Jules’s prep school, Gwen eventually pleads with her friend and immediate boss, David Fisher (James Urbaniak), for her job back. He reluctantly agrees to her proposal that she undertake the delicate and dangerous cosmetic surgery that the Center plans to announce and pioneer—a process by which a person’s consciousness is shifted into a younger cloned body. "What if we want someone more universal?" David asks, and Gwen’s Korean-American features freeze in shock. As an Asian woman, "more universal" could mean anything, especially when it comes to marketing an aspirational cosmetic procedure. Age, sex, and race coalesce, and lead us to deduce that the Center had planned this sequence of events precisely to force her into this position. The choice to fire Gwen within the specific economic climate, with knowledge of Jules’s upcoming tuition needs; to have ensured that her savings would be negligible given their choice to underpay her for a while; and to blackball her with the recruitment agency: each of these decisions means the Center has effectively left her without the resources to job-hunt over a period of time or support herself in the interim. Thus, as much as David begs her to reconsider—citing the fact that, despite their plans to roll out the procedure, the technology itself is not ready—Gwen is right to note that she has no other viable choice: her entire life is time-sensitive. She is old and getting older. Bills have to be paid. Jules needs to be positioned for the right school. Jules needs to be given her best chance.
As Gwen struggles to explain these changes to Jules, the film lays out the simplicity of its premise—that none of this matters except for the connections we form with those we love. And this echoes the film’s choice to mediate between a more traditional association of the sterility of cityscapes with the same blankness reflected in its citizens (as women are increasingly becoming sterile younger due to stress) while also depicting the majority of its characters with children that they care about. Paucity of family is not a component of this dystopia, and love for their children is often referenced as its parents’ driving force.
But, Advantageous asks, if this love drives us, then how much of that is embodied in us, in the very bones and blood of us? It would be a nauseating question if it weren’t laid out with the simplicity of Gwen struggling to explain to Jules that she will shift from the very body that has so far defined her. It broke me with a sudden tenderness I wasn’t expecting as Gwen stares into a mirror over Jules’s shoulder and traces the lines of her face: the very idea of my mother not smelling as she does, not fitting against me the way I expect when I hug her, the thought that I wouldn’t know her face as well as my own. In the film, Jules shrugs this off as part of her mom’s job; for her, the essence of Gwen will not change. Gwen will still be her mother in every way that matters, which is all the ways "on the inside"—in her consciousness. They choose a new body from the Center’s provided shortlist, based not only on looks but on whether Jules would be comfortable seeing that face in the morning, looking into it when she’s crying for help, when she’s sick and helpless. Jules doesn’t understand the gravity of that. I couldn’t stop crying because I did.
As Gwen and Jules view her new body (Freya Adams) before the procedure, Gwen warns Jules that when she returns she will need help with breathing, with her medicine, that she might forget things and it will be up to Jules to remind her. In the most decisive of the film’s science fictional moments, the procedure involves numerous tubes poking out of Gwen’s head, firing short sparks of light to signal the transfer of her neuron-shapes, and Gwen’s body slumps as we’re bombarded with negative-light images of staring down at hands on a gurney. It’s the most discordant moment in what has so far been a beautifully shot and sparely and carefully scored film, and deliberately so. We are to be disconcerted and haunted by this moment because it is the only one that does not exist in our world (yet).
Gwen 2.0 returns home and she and Jules struggle to relate to one another. Gwen no longer performs any of the quiet intimacies of living with Jules—doesn’t make her lunch, cuddle in bed, or play with her hair—and they fail to bond, even as she performs well as a spokesperson. We wonder whether a disoriented Gwen 2.0 is suffering from prosopagnosia (a disorder in which a person is unable to recognise the faces of their loved ones), though it’s clear that Gwen is gradually recovering her memories and does, in fact, know Jules. Echoing our concerns and her own, Jules accuses Gwen of having killed her mother as she attacks her physically, eventually subsiding into an angry, boiling silence. By presenting us with this moment, Advantageous plays with Capgras Syndrome—where a person believes that their loved one has been replaced with an identical imposter—except that in this case Gwen 2.0 is not physically identical, just mentally identical. And yet within this replication she somehow lacks the thing that bonded her to Jules. The film leaves what exactly this is open-ended. We have no way of knowing whether it was a physical bond, whether it was the emotions tied to a memory rather than the memory itself, whether it was the weight of intimacy from time spent together. How do you quantify what makes you love someone if you’re not sure you feel it? What happens when you’re supposed to feel a bond and you cannot? We’re left to wonder whether this reborn Gwen is perhaps the film’s way of looking at post-partum depression, as Jules struggles with expecting a bond that Gwen 2.0 feels unable to properly reciprocate.
As a result, Gwen 2.0 asks to be separated from Jules and discovers the truth—that she is not Gwen herself but a copy of her memories; a clone whose brain was capable of regenerating from all that damage in a way that the older brain could not. We’re shown the same discordant transfer scene as earlier but now it has new context to it—this isn’t the rebirth we (and the characters) had been led to expect. Rather, it is the scene of a death from which a new life emerges, but not the same life, despite its similarities. Gwen herself was aware of the procedure’s cost and is dead. The truth was kept from the mental transfer at her request, in the hope that Gwen 2.0 would be better able to perform. Gwen 2.0 returns home to tell Jules that her mother is dead and that she is all that is left. She also contacts Lily and Han, who’ve reached out (just that little bit too late), to let them know that Gwen is gone and she is all that remains. When Jules struggles to understand Gwen’s sacrifice, she asks again what the point of her existence is. Gwen 2.0 inadvertently repeats her original’s words—that whatever Jules does will matter because she’s smart and kind. It’s a white lie that allows for comfort, being enough that Jules can see the echo of her mother in this stranger with her memories.
It’s impossible to parse, but somehow the film manages to end on a sense of hope. Gwen 2.0 arranges a picnic where Lily, Han, and their two sons can meet Jules. In essence, the film returns us to that central question at its close—how do you measure existence in this world? If it’s simply memories, then Gwen still exists in Gwen 2.0. If it’s bonds, then the bonds between Gwen 2.0, Jules, Lily, and Han are all only just beginning. If it’s worth, then being a woman is weighted against us and time only threatens more load. If you total up all the fears that technology, sexism, racism, ageism, and consumerism leave us with, how do we justify existence against all of that? How do we justify the costs of being advantageous in this society?
I don’t know how to even begin that answer, but I know it starts with hugging my mother.
Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.