Jennifer Phang, Ken Jeong talk dystopian sci-fi ‘Advantageous’

May 14, 2015
"Advantageous," 2015 (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Pacific Asian Film Festival)

“Advantageous,” 2015 (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Pacific Asian Film Festival)

By Tae Hong

How far would a mother go to secure a better life for her daughter?

It’s the question asked by dystopian sci-fi film “Advantageous,” helmed by Sundance award-winning director Jennifer Phang and featuring a cast that includes Jacqueline Kim and Ken Jeong.

The film, which premiered earlier this year, was a narrative feature nominee last month at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Phang, who has a long history with works shown at the fest, walked away with the Best Director award. It also picked up the Special Jury Award for collaborative vision at Sundance.

Set in a distant, futuristic world, a biotech firm spokeswoman, Gwen Koh, fights a losing battle as she struggles to support her daughter Jules in a harsh society when she’s presented with a decision that would change the course of her daughter’s life at an extreme cost.

“Advantageous” grew out of a 2012 short made for an ITVS series, “Futurestates,” which invited filmmakers to contribute short narrative films.

Phang, encouraged by the positive reaction (it went around the festival circuit, from Tribeca to Comic-Con to fests in Hawaii, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and even the APFF, where it won the Golden Reel Award for Excellence in Short Film), launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to get the feature-length version going.

The goal was $30,000. With the help of co-producers James Shih and Qi Luo, and 506 backers later, they’d hit $34,375.

Director Jennifer Phang (Photo courtesy of LAAPFF)

Director Jennifer Phang (Photo courtesy of LAAPFF)

“I think people understood this is a story that comes from a really real place,” Phang said, in an interview with the Korea Times. “I was incredibly moved that we made our goal. It warmed my heart.”

The film is a looking glass into some of society’s most persistent problems, among them fixation on youth and beauty and the dangers of widening class division. And in its simplest, ultimate form, according to Phang and Jeong, it’s a story about family.

It was a deeply personal project for both Phang, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim, and for Jeong, who is a father to twin girls aged 7.

In many ways, Phang said, the project was a tribute to her mother, who, with her husband in another country, raised Phang and her brother single-handedly.

Her mother worked two jobs, one a midnight shift, only to come home in the morning to take her children to school.

“There was a time when she was effectively a single mother,” Phang said. “It was all about her being this machine, supporting my life. As an adult, you go, oh my gosh. That’s her identity being created around me.”

“It really hit close to home for me, because everything we do, ultimately it goes to our kids,” Jeong said. He first came across the project after watching the short. When he was asked to participate in the feature-length film, it was an immediate yes.

Jeong, famously a former practicing physician who gave up his medical career to become one of the most recognizable Asian American faces on television, is the comedic force beloved by fans from all over as the off-kilter Señor Chang on NBC’s “Community.”

“Advantageous” is a major shift for the actor in his first-ever dramatic role as the husband, Han, to Jacqueline Kim’s Gwen.

“It’s really one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of, one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career,” he said. “Jennifer finessed out a performance that came from a point of view purely from being a father. Nothing like I’ve done, and not out of a crazy intensity for comedic effect. It was wonderfully intense. It’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’m still living off that high, in many ways.”

(Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

Ken Jeong (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

Filming for the movie took place in 2013. Jeong said he returned to the “Community” set post-”Advantageous” about a month later as a changed actor.

His approach to playing Chang, inspired, had found confidence, he said. Even Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta on the show, noticed, he said, to the point where he told her about the film and how it influenced him to try different approaches to the character.

“[Being a part of the film] helped inform the future choices I’m making currently as an actor,” Jeong said. “That’s what it’s all about for me, to keep pushing myself.”

Jeong saw another film in which he had a hand (as executive producer and cameo), “K-Town Cowboys,” receive a spotlight as the APFF’s centerpiece presentation. Both projects were what he calls, even while lamenting it’s a overused term in the business, a “passion project.”

“The rest of my life, the choices I want to make, I want it to be guided by something I believe in, that I’m passionate about. You can never be wrong when you’re guided by that,” Jeong said.

The film’s been labeled as a feminist effort by reviewers like the Hollywood Reporter, in terms of the female perspective it offers in a fictional world depicting marginalized women.

In response, Phang said she sees the effort more as a humanist one than a feminist one.

“I didn’t go into it saying, I’m going to make a feminist film. I just happen to believe that women and men should be treated equally. For male characters, we investigate their perspectives and their motivations as fathers as well,” she said. “This was intended to be a kind of universal film that explored the motivations of parents. I think we’re in a beautifully changing world right now — there’s so much momentum with women, young women and girls who are starting to understand that we are leaders as much as men are. It’s about acting with the empathy that maybe comes from motherhood and expanding that level of empathy beyond yourself and wider and wider.”

Phang hopes her project inspires viewers to reevaluate what it means to live in a society based on self-interest, where people allow an extreme gap between the wealthy and non-wealthy to form and expand.

It’s also a new perspective on family.

“I’m interested in audiences exploring what their definition of family truly is, and what it means,” she said.

“['Advantageous'] is about not being afraid to challenge your thinking,” Jeong agreed. “Don’t be afraid to redefine your thinking. That, to me, is a bigger message.”

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