Jennifer Phang on the underlying ideas of Advantageous (SFIFF 2015, Sundance 2015 Jury Prize Winner)
Though I'm originally from the SF Bay Area, and think I share many Bay Area values, Advantageous was also inspired by my time in New York City. For three years I was a resident of Washington Heights, a neighborhood near the top of Manhattan Island. Then the rent was less costly than usual because of the 2008 financial collapse. I was able to use my grants to survive for a few months as I developed my film projects. I liked it there. Seniors played dominos on the corner in the rain. Young men celebrated big baseball wins with bonfires. The neighborhoods were more noisy because they were alive with activity.
I did get catcalled all the time for looking different. It was a new experience, to become especially conscious of my appearance, age, and gender just by stepping outside my door. It was almost always meant to be a positive interaction, but once I was called "a Chinese bitch" by an unstable person. It hurt only because it was an isolated incident, and I wasn't toughened for it.
On the southbound train from Washington Heights apparent heroin addicts would sometimes sink to their knees, in near tears, and ask passengers for sympathy and money. This may have been their regular routine, but when they said "please" a rush of pain would shoot through me. At other times I would see parents taking children to and from school, teaching them urgent lessons about proper behavior and self-discipline. Most kids would listen carefully.
When my train reached the Upper West Side, more families flooded through the sliding doors. Students mused, debated, and called out questions to their mothers and fathers. These kids were curious, seeking the truth. Their parents were determined to help them think for themselves so they might thrive on their own someday soon. Self-discipline wasn't something that had to be taught. These children felt free to thrive. Seeing this stark difference in kids’ confidence and curiosity over the length of a single train ride, I finally felt the painful unfairness of our education system.
When ITVS invited me to submit a story idea about a future America, I wrote the short film version of Advantageous and teamed up with powerful actors and creatives. We released the film at the beginning of 2012 as part of the FutureStates series.
After completing the short I moved back to the Bay Area. Here we have BART and Muni that allow for people’s lives to intersect, but somehow the difference in opportunities for kids isn't as starkly visible as it was in New York. What became clear to me was that for most people in the world, life is about survival and community. And any of us who can grow up taking for granted our survival is lucky and, quite likely, privileged. The Bay Area has a commitment to action, empathy and participation that I hope it never loses. These days more and more people are vocal about these values disappearing as the community changes. But this won't happen, if we don't let it.
With the support of Bay Area filmmakers and the SFFS FilmHouse Residency, I developed the short into a full-length feature and raised funds with my producers. Then in August 2013 we went right back to hot, humid New York for production. We brought over a team of Bay Area natives to join our NYC crew to make the film. New York Producer Theresa Navarro, who had previously worked from the SF Bay Area, connected me with Richard Wong (Director, COLMA: The Musical; Cinematographer, Man From Reno). Richard Wong came on as our cinematographer. It moved me deeply when he, gaffer/unit DP Seng Chen, DIT Richard Sue, and our SF co-producers James Shih and Qi Luo coordinated to haul out Richard Wong's own equipment from SF to the East Coast, so he could get the optimal look we wanted. There were buckets of Bay Area sweat wetting down the New York streets that summer.
After shooting and postproduction completed in Fall 2014, Advantageous made its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Collaborative Vision. The Bay Area premiere was at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival and its theatrical run in San Francisco begins at the Roxie Theater on Friday, June 26. For those beyond the BART and Muni lines and carless, it premieres on Netflix and video-on-demand on Tuesday, June 23.
Jennifer Phang’s award-winning debut feature Half-Life premiered in 2008 at the Tokyo International and Sundance film festivals. It screened at SxSW and was distributed by Sundance Channel. She was invited to the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab and was awarded a San Francisco Film Society / Kenneth Rainin Foundation FilmHouse residency, SFFS Women Filmmaker Fellowship, and Sundance Institute feature film grant. The Berkeley-born daughter of a Chinese-Malaysian father and Vietnamese mother, Phang graduated from the American Film Institute’s MFA directing program.