Advantageousrecommended viewing

The face of today, just a scalpel away
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Jennifer Phang
Starring: 
Jacqueline Kim, Samantha Kim, Jennifer Ehle, James Urbaniak
The Setup: 
Woman encouraged to take new, younger body to compete in the job market.
Discussion: 

This suddenly appeared out of nowhere on Netflix, with no familiar stars or anything, but it sounded interesting: A woman is pressured to get plastic surgery in order to remain competitive in her workplace. Since that sort of story interests me, I gave it a try, and it gave me a few surprises: for one, it’s sci-fi, set in an anonymous super-city at an unspecified point in the near future. It then went on to have such a brilliant analysis of global society and where it’s heading that I was completely intrigued and impressed. So what if it can’t find a good ending for itself, the main action is in the vision of the futuristic world it sets up.

We open with a woman practicing a business speech at home. Meanwhile her daughter walks to school with her friends. These are intercut with lovely credits in which flowers bloom or bubbles form into images of women. As the kids walk, there is “another explosion,” obviously a fairly common occurrence, and we look up to see the megacity, with drones flying in. This was my first realization that this was futuristic sci-fi, which is always welcome!

The mother, Gwen, and daughter, Jules, are played by a real-life mother and daughter, a decision that works out beautifully as they look alike and also effortlessly convey a rapport and intimacy. As they walk in the park, they discuss how nature is regressing, DNA is breaking down because animals aren’t getting enough variety of genetic matter. We find out that the economy is sluggish, which is hammered harder as Gwen is fired from her job, and soon realizes that in the current economy, there is pretty much no chance of someone her age getting another one. When she says that she used to teach, and could find work teaching again, she’s told “but teaching is all automated now.” She used to be the spokesperson of a personal appearance pharmaceutical company, but now the company wants to “go younger” because they “can’t alienate that [youth] market.” They are marketing a painless procedure in which your being and consciousness is put into a younger body. Sort of like plastic surgery, only you actually get an entirely new body.

The news says that there has been a rise in child prostitution. We also hear that women in society are now going backwards instead of forward. When Jules says she heard a woman in the next apartment crying, Gwen asks “Upstairs woman or downstairs woman?” Gwen doesn’t tell Jules right away that she was fired. Jules asks “Why am I alive? [In order to get accepted to a school] I need to be smarter, prettier, do more volunteer work…” So there is all this setting of this future world, and if you read the paper, you’ll find that a lot of it is a very canny, intelligent vision of what the future might hold. I can’t single out one thing, but it ALL resonates with a science, political or social article I’ve read. It also very intelligently deals with the emotions that living with this kind of socio-economic environment would give rise to.

Soon Gwen is meeting with a group of affluent women who want to match their young kids with equally “advantaged” mates early in life, because “this is the only time of their lives when their choices will make a difference.” Gwen calls her mom and asks for money, but—for some reason that remains unspoken—will not allow her father to see Jules, ever. Her mother says that God has forgiven her father, and that she will pray for her… but no money. During this time, Gwen is sitting in a park, and in the distance, a woman in a creepy silver mask enters the park… not interacting with the scene, but just creating an unsettling presence. Gwen also meets with Jennifer Ehle as the head of the corporation she worked for, to discuss possibly getting the procedure. Ehle doesn’t have much to do, but she is absolutely terrific in the part, exuding a pitch-perfect blend of corporate fake concern and getting across an undercurrent of craven hope that Gwen goes for it, regardless of the consequences she might face. Her few scenes do everything necessary to convey the corporate priorities, and impersonal lack of empathy from the firm. Realizing that with no job, Jules has no future, Gwen agrees to undergo the procedure, requesting one last Christmas with her daughter first.

SPOILERS > > >
Gwen’s friend [and former boyfriend] at the company takes her out to warn her against the procedure, saying that “the technology isn’t there yet,” and that patients report a lot of pain and breathing issues. By the way, the movie paints worldwide surveillance via satellite as widely available, as Ehle tries to listen in to this conversation. They essentially recreate all of the memories of one person in a clone, but it “isn’t like pouring one cup of water into another.” Still, Gwen sees it as Jules’ only chance to succeed in life, so she’s going forward.

Now we introduce another strange thread, which is that Gwen is estranged from her sister, because, it is revealed: she slept with her sister’s husband, and Jules is actually his daughter! Then she’s back home, looking through a catalog of new faces and bodies she might choose, at which point we start to see a luminous tunnel image, which is never explicitly explained, but seems to symbolize the weird new journey Gwen is going on. Soon enough, she undergoes the procedure, and her new body is a young Latina woman.

Soon we see Gwen giving a marketing speech to a crowd, using herself as an example of the procedure, and after a while we hear that “sales are through the roof.” At home, she’s “just weird” in the eyes of Jules… she’s like a zombie, and it’s clear that she is not at all her mother anymore. They live like strangers for a while, and we see Jules mourning the loss of her real mother. Meanwhile, on the news, the anchors report another incidence of terrorism, editorializing that “only weirdos go in for violence,” and that everyone is lucky to be alive and living in a golden era, where all the new skyscrapers are like works of art.

There is a long period of tension and estrangement between the new Gwen and Jules, and Gwen undergoes health issues in her new body. It comes to a crisis in which it looks like she might be about to die, but Jules gets her medication in time. Soon the mother and daughter are getting along better, and Jules is even saying “you sound like her.” The we see that Gwen’s sister and husband forgive her, and the last scene is them all having a picnic together, implying that that everything is going to be fine… or, as fine as it can possibly be in such a broken world.
< < < SPOILERS END

So, the end is a bit disappointing. It just kind of flattens out and goes inert, ending with a return to stasis instead of any kind of big change or, God forbid, any action or serious climax. It’s sort of like “We went through this big, drastic change… then, after a while, we got used to it.” The end. But this is, for better and worse—mostly better—a woman’s film. It is written by director Jennifer Phang and the lead actress, and, while I am trying to avoid easy stereotypes, it shows the hallmarks of being created by women—a very intelligent, perceptive view of how politics and social issues trickle down into the interpersonal lives of its characters, an emphasis on small, potent interpersonal moments and some very real-seeming character interactions, a brilliant build-up of small details that flush out this world, a de-emphasis on action, and, on the less great side, that squish of an ending. I’ll bet this movie would enjoy much greater success and be more widely seen if it had only thought of something exciting to happen at the end. I know, everything doesn’t have to end with blowing up this or that, but come on… throw us something!

But, what is terrific and makes the film 100% worth watching is the uncannily rich and absolutely true-to-life vision of where we’ll be in a few years. This movie takes place in an unnamed global city, and when you consider global issues going on now, it forms a brilliantly rich vision of where we might be in a few years. Opportunities for young people are dwindling, forcing them to accrue more and more accomplishments and activities just to keep up. More and more jobs are being automated, leaving even well-trained professionals unable to find employment. Surveillance is becoming ever-more intrusive and prevalent. In China, the country is moving everyone into mega-cities and and out of rural areas. Biological diversity is dropping as the rate of extinctions skyrocket. As jobs get more competitive and ideals of beauty get younger, women have to increasingly fall back on sexuality and attractiveness, and can be said to be “moving backward,” as this movie states. Basically, every tiny little aspect of this future world—and there are many, many tiny, delicate details—has been confirmed by something I’ve read in the news. So, far and away the best thing about this movie is the wonderfully accurate and fleshed-out vision of its future world.

The performances are also quite good, the writing perceptive, and it is quite engaging for quite a while. Perhaps they raise expectations for something more exciting to happen by the end, but the positives far outweigh the negatives in this fascinating little sci-fi gem.

Should you watch it: 

If you like socially-critical futuristic sci-fi, definitely!

Comments

Having lived in Seoul for 14 years, I can say that this vision of the future has already arrived. Women DO have to go under the knife to get a job. HAVE TO. The sex trade is booming because it's basically one of the only jobs where women can earn a living if they don't get into the best schools. This has everything to do with living in a tiny country with a large population (48 million or so) in an area roughly the size of Alabama. In China it is more extreme. To appear taller, women have metal bars surgically implanted in their legs. We are not so pressured here in the States, but it can't be too far off?

I suspected so, I just didn't have any documented facts. Wow... incredible. I had some South Korean friends at work and they gave me some insight into the competitiveness of the schools, and I'm fascinated by any articles about the plastic surgery situation there... Already in the States there is severe ageism professionally, and there was a fascinating article about workers pressured to take Adderall, because everyone else is, and they have to keep up! Plus, more and more jobs [even "skilled" jobs like writing] can now be done by computer. I am honestly happy not to be any younger than I am, and to remember a time before the Internet and cell phones... And that I'll die before things get REALLY awful [I hope...] Thanks for your comment!

Hi this is an OT.
Have you watched "the Choirboys" (1977)? Some find it wonderful, some a disgusting, homophobic, overly cynical piece of crap. Oh, and it's by the author of "What ever happened to Baby Jane?" I suggest you give it a try.

I checked the buzz out on IMDb and it is indeed controversial. One person suggested Googling "Why cops hate you" for insight before watching. Unfortunately it's not available anywere except YouTube... I'm going to have to get used to watching movies there! Thanks for the suggestion!