Everything Everywhere All at Once
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
I don’t usually like to make my life and background the focus of my reviews, since my general inclinations are to let my observations assume their personality from what I choose to write about and to not interfere with the text itself. But Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once begs for me to consider it in light of this. There are certain aspects of myself that, for various reasons, I can’t bring into this piece, but suffice it to say that this film — in how eerily and perfectly it captures my relationships with my parents and my heritage, along with my present circumstances — should have absolutely destroyed me, serving as an absurdist funhouse mirror that nevertheless contained my recognizable visage at the center. That it doesn’t do so (leaving aside any likely emotional deficiencies that I possess) stems from, among other things, its utterly counterproductive ambitions and its ultimate shortsightedness with regards to a certain view of Chinese-American experiences, along with its misunderstanding of Michelle Yeoh; I should say here up front that my parents are from Taiwan while the Wangs are from Hong Kong, but as I’ll get into this slight difference might be even less significant than it originally appears, to the film’s detriment.
Before fully diving in, I do wonder how much of my response to Everything Everywhere All at Once is a direct reaction to the way it has been received as a landmark of Chinese/Chinese-American representation in United States film. It’s certainly something I’ve considered, and has been at least a small part of my negative feelings towards Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell (and, much more tangentially, Minari for Asian-Americans generally). While the merits of these films vary wildly, it’s impossible not to notice that the main thing linking all these films together is that most common of narrative devices, especially with respect to Asians: family. I don’t mean to imply at all that filmmakers of Asian descent should avoid trying to make films explicitly about family; Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is my favorite Chinese-language film after all, and everyone from Fei Mu to Tsai Ming-liang has at one point or another explored what it means to be part of a family. But what comes across as a more quotidian or allegorical concern in those films is “elevated” to something of near-life-or-death consequences, the battle between the parent who wants to preserve the family unit at all costs versus the child who yearns to become more free, who implicitly wants to assimilate (or has) into the Western culture in which they live.
Such a conflict is ballooned, in the style of Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s co-producers and Marvel Cinematic Universe helmers Anthony & Joe Russo, so that Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) must literally save not only the world or the universe, but also the entirety of existence across innumerable parallel universes. As self-consciously ludicrous and unwieldy as the film gets, this struggle is more-or-less construed as, in the film’s twisted logic, the reason everything bad that has ever happened. The various events, no matter when they take place and whether Evelyn and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) are in them, are unmoored and then knit together by the presence of these two people: a mother and a daughter.
I don’t plan to get too much into the head-spinning and likely totally confused weeds of the multiverse, but instead to concentrate on the family relationships plural: for much of the film, due to the apparently unbelievably dangerous force that Joy/Jobu Tupaki — is that meant to be a bastardization of something in Chinese? Doesn’t seem to resemble anything I can remember — possesses, Waymond (Quan Kế Huy) is Evelyn’s companion and mentor, and her father (James Hong) makes a number of appearances, though always presented at a remove. The opening of the film, before part 1’s title “Everything” appears, feels very much in the vein of a recent trend in films that people like the Safdies seem to have ushered in: a barrage of colliding work and family priorities as Evelyn navigates the hectic laundromat patrons, her muddled taxes subject to review by the IRS, her impending Chinese New Year celebration, and of course her ongoing disagreements with Joy over her desire to introduce Becky (the great Tallie Medel, for once flattened into standard bland independent film acting) as her girlfriend to her Gong Gong. If that wasn’t enough, the hapless Waymond is attempting to serve Evelyn divorce papers on that same day, never mind the fact that the spouse can’t actually serve the other spouse their divorce papers.
Of course, this fits Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s general “anything goes” approach, but in doing so it leaves no room to breathe or to consider how this family arrived in this situation. While the flashbacks and alternate branches attempt to fill in Evelyn’s backstory in particular, it’s implied by omission that nothing of importance happened at all during the twenty-some years between Evelyn and Waymond’s emigration to Simi Valley, a span of time only captured by wistful-then-caustic childhood memories captured in 4:3 — the film also follows the current trend of shifting aspect ratios, using 4:3 for flashbacks, 1.85:1 for “normal” scenes and various other pastiches, and 2.35:1 for the martial arts/action sequences, never mind the fact that Yeoh’s prime Hong Kong-era work was shot in 1.85:1.
Indeed, Hong Kong and its place within Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially in relation to Yeoh, forms a prime factor in my mistrust of it and its supposed Chinese-American bona fides. One of the most immediately glaring factors comes in language: the film takes great pains to show the fluid, almost subconscious nature of how immigrants switch between two languages, speaking a few words amid a sentence and/or an entire sentence in English, even when the thought is meant to be conveyed in Chinese. This is really pretty admirable, and very reflective of how I’ve observed my parents interact over the years. However, there’s a confusion that likely isn’t discernible to any viewer who doesn’t have knowledge of Chinese: Evelyn and Waymond, despite (seemingly) being from Hong Kong, speak in Mandarin; this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that Evelyn and her father speak Cantonese to each other throughout, which isn’t reflected in the subtitles at all. Even in the flashback scenes, including the pivotal one where Evelyn and Waymond decide to leave together for America against her father’s wishes, the two of them are speaking Mandarin. The most cynical interpretation would be that the filmmakers deliberately chose Mandarin over Cantonese in an effort to further appeal to the mainland Chinese market; I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but it’s carried out at such length that I wonder if it was the filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with the language or some other factor that led to this break with their characters’ place of birth.
This, however, isn’t as egregious as Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s near-total abandonment of Chinese for large sections of the film. It certainly can’t be a coincidence that the Alpha Waymond and Alpha Gong Gong, the two characters who have the brunt of the exposition that hurriedly explains the rules and quirks of the multiverse, exclusively speak English with Yeoh responding in kind, even in the scenes that are slower and more heartfelt. This could be maybe weakly explained away by the Alpha universe not utilizing Chinese anymore, though it *is* worth noting that the only other people seen in the technologically advanced Alpha universe are not Asian, which sticks out in a film mostly committed to casting as many Asians in speaking parts as possible. If I remember correctly, Chinese isn’t spoken in the climax at all save for Evelyn’s final acceptance of Joy, for me a very affecting scene that nevertheless speaks to many of the film’s ultimate problems, which I’ll get to in a moment.
First, I have to talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s main draw: Michelle Yeoh, who eventually decidedly won out over my hatred of the wretched Swiss Army Man, Kwan and Scheinert’s previous directorial collaboration. The film is clearly in large part a tribute to and vehicle for Yeoh; while it’s patently false to claim this as Yeoh’s first starring role, it does aim to showcase her talents, though the action here generally doesn’t have anything near the weight of golden era Hong Kong cinema. I can’t be so contrarian to claim that, say, her recent supporting performance in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is better than this (though it’s close), and she is indeed very strong in both martial arts poses and emotional vigor alike. But the more this ventures into a meta-text, the more it fails to come close to the pathos of Yeoh’s actual career. The universe that gets the most screen time — the hot dog fingers one is likely a close second — is the one where Evelyn breaks up with Waymond stays in Hong Kong. After getting mugged, she decides to learn kung fu — her female master is played by Li Jing, best known for doing stunts in the awful live-action Mulan; in a film where Yeoh, Quan, Hong, and even the originally cast Awkwafina (in Hsu’s role) were likely all chosen at least in part for their metatextual resonances, this uninspired choice is one of countless missed opportunities in the film — and become essentially Michelle Yeoh. While she retains her Evelyn name, it’s genuinely kind of stunning when the film cuts to actual red carpet footage, a piercing of the thick veil that the film has wrapped around itself in order to fully cement its connection to reality — even if it is for the personally offensive Crazy Rich Asians.
But Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia to a Malaysian Chinese family, didn’t grow up in Hong Kong or learn kung fu in order to break into the entertainment industry. As laid out by Sean Gilman in his typically essential MUBI Notebook article, she, like Cheng Pei-pei and Zhang Ziyi, never learned kung fu, instead utilizing her ballet training to aid in her understanding of the moves, along with her daredevil approach to doing her own stunts. Additionally, she grew up speaking English and Malay, even deciding to go down the career path of action rather than comedy where she felt her still-burgeoning Cantonese wasn’t good enough; she had to learn her Mandarin lines in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — still the greatest performance of hers for me, and in a number of ways a vastly superior consideration of what it is to be a woman and mother (figure) in Chinese-centered society — phonetically. Quan’s history, while less storied, still remains complicated; he was born in Saigon to a Hoa family with Han Chinese ancestry. If I’m not mistaken, they were of Cantonese descent, and he resided briefly in Hong Kong before emigrating to the United States, thereafter bouncing back and forth between the two continents on film shoots during his hiatus from acting; endearingly, he still retains something of the squeakiness of his voice from his role as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Kwan & Scheinert, however, for all the supposed imagination they possess, can’t seem to bother with crafting anything close to the immensely complex and fascinating possibilities that Chinese heritage, across national and local borders, possesses. Their ideas of heritage in this lugubrious 139 minute film are simply reduced to “Hong Konger chooses to defy her parents and move to America.” Even a film that takes a decision to immigrate as a starting point, like Mabel Cheung’s lovely An Autumn’s Tale, or as a late-breaking plot point, like Peter Chan’s masterpiece Comrades: Almost a Love Story, knows that cities and places are realms to inhabit and to render as believable places full of genuine interactions, that there is a specific relationship that Chinese people have between their homeland and this strange new place they’ve come to.
When I was growing up in Irvine, where Asians formed a sizable proportion of the population, I was fairly blasé with my ethnicity, shrugging off attempts to learn Chinese and becoming rapidly bored with my family’s semi-frequent trips to Taiwan and China. As I started to live in a city where I habitually interacted with people of different heritages and became more obsessed with Chinese film, I found my love for my native country, experiencing a pronounced longing that still persists within me.
In Simi Valley, which is overwhelmingly White and where Chinese people make up 1.2% of the population, I’d expect there to be more of a desire to engage with what it means to leave a place. After all, in a multiverse that has room for a 2-D animated world, an admittedly very funny and well-executed Earth where no life developed and Evelyn and Joy are manifested as rocks, and a party where the two women are piñatas, it would seem that getting an idea of what a place means to a person, whether they live in it or apart from it, would be essential to ground the film. But there is apparently no room for such supposedly mundane considerations even in a film called Everything Everywhere All at Once, even in one where the mundane issue of not revealing a child’s sexual orientation to their grandfather — something immensely common in a Chinese-American culture where Evelyn’s very acceptance of Joy’s queerness isn’t the norm — lights the fuse for the near-collapse of existence.
Before going further, I should mention that Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t all bad, and has some interesting and genuinely really good parts. Yeoh, Hsu, Quan, and Hong are all quite strong and do their best to sell the ludicrous sentimentality of the film; Hsu especially does well with the attitude and blithe disregard that her villainous incarnations have to play. And there’s a stretch of about thirty seconds when Yeoh entirely fractures the multiverse that, in its rapid editing using Yeoh (I think) as its focal point, plays like something close to Jodie Mack.
However, it’s easy to nitpick Everything Everywhere All at Once, given its sprawling canvas and refusal to let even the smallest gag be resolved in a non-happy ending — the implication of course being that this one declaration of love is enough to right the wrongs across all manifestations of space and time. I could point to my annoyance with the laundromat showing some British-Indian musical romance with dancing — even without probable colonialist intimations, why isn’t it a Chinese film? It could even have been an homage to Li Han-hsiang’s heartbreaking The Love Eterne, one of the most popular films in Hong Kong history and itself, via a simple but devastating conceit, a watershed queer film that might have played off well against the supposed central issue.
There’s even the issue of the Wong Kar-wai homage, which bafflingly deploys the green filter used on In the Mood for Love‘s Criterion reimagining. Quan’s suit certainly recalls Tony Leung’s, though I don’t think Yeoh is wearing a cheongsam; Quan was the assistant director on 2046, while Yeoh of course has never been in a Wong film. But aside from a few blurred/step-framed shots, the film is shot in the same bland digital as the rest of the film, with fixed frames and shots that are just-off-center, coming nowhere close to the hazy romanticism of Wong’s films. Like everything else in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and utterly unlike Wong, who even introduces complexity into his voiceovers, there’s no depth, no ambiguity as to what’s being depicted or discussed; it’s simply a near-monologue by Waymond recounting his abiding longing for Evelyn.
That very lack of depth is what makes the insufferably simple resolution ring so hollow, where “the everything everywhere all at once was love” is the message the viewer is *supposed* to take away from Everything Everywhere All at Once. While love is unconditional, the circumstances in which you see loved ones are not; love (at least between humans) can be in some ways strengthened by distance and should be seen as something that takes so many different forms. But Kwan and Scheinert see love as an unyielding thing that can be sealed by a single act; even Evelyn’s decision to let go is repaid by Joy coming back instead of going into the abyss. That it comes so close to getting it, so close to getting me and my situation, makes it bother me all the more.