From the point of view of a Taiwanese American eighteen year old aspiring filmmaker
I’ve been following “Everything Everywhere All At Once” since the first trailer released over a year ago. The trailer told me nothing about the plot of the movie, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it would be the most epic movie I had ever seen. There was a combination of factors that intrigued me: the sci-fi/Asian American immigrant mother-daughter hybrid story, the mysteriousness of the trailer, the googly eyes, the comedy, and above all, the cast. Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis were legends, and was Stephanie Hsu… Karen from the Spongebob musical? Apparently yes. Instant legend. Most of all, I was absolutely crazily excited to see Ke Huy Quan. I had always had a crush on Short Round as a kid, and he had already given several interviews about how this was his first movie role in twenty years, and his first major one in thirty, since there now seemed to be a market for Asian male actors. I had such high expectations for this movie that I do not know how it turned out to be even better than I expected. Which is a good thing, because I would have been crushed if I had gone to see it and it was boring.
I went to see EEAAO the night it came out with my friend, who I thought knew a little bit about the movie also. Right after the lights went down and we were immediately bombarded with a supercut of flashy, seizure-inducing fonts of the “Gozie Agbo” logo, my friend asked me what this movie was about. I looked at her, shocked, and did not know what to say that could possibly prepare her for what we were about to experience. So I thought really quickly and could come up with only one guarantee: “It’s going to be… weird.”
“It’s going to be… weird.”
On the ride back, my friend and I barely said anything. After about fifteen minutes of avoidant silence, we broke the ice and started talking about the movie. Gushing. Screaming. Assuring each other that what we saw was real. Over the next week, I took my parents and four different friends to see it with me three more times. I admit that, in retrospect, that was kind of an overload, but I had never been more excited to share a movie with anyone else, nor more convinced that this film was a necessity, something that was going to change the world like it had changed me.
Within five minutes of the movie I became convinced that Evelyn was my mom. Evelyn struggles to use the correct pronouns when describing Joy’s girlfriend Becky and accidentally refers to her as a he. “You know me. I always mix up ‘he’ ‘she’. In Chinese, just one word. Ta. So easy.” Where have I heard that before? Oh right. My mother. I mean, I see her point.
I have a kind of fractured relationship with my mother that I could see mirrored in Evelyn and Joy. When Evelyn stops Joy to tell her something meaningful, she can’t find the words to comfort her daughter and instead tells her “You have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.” My mother can never find the words to say something as simple as “I love you” either. Her showing love is her telling me I need to take care of myself better. It was a new experience to see something so intimate accurately mirrored onscreen at a theater. Since I’m half Asian American and half white, I was used to half-identifying with a white mother/daughter relationship in Hollywood movies; never before had I seen an uncomfortable Asian American girl battle with her passive-aggressive half-progressive immigrant mom the way my mom and I do in real life… in a movie. “Crazy Rich Asians” had tried to bring some of that dynamic between Rachel and her soon-to-be mother-in-law Eleanor, also played by Michelle Yeoh, but her character was more of a positional threat than an actual, real relationship. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Eleanor and Rachel were essentially perfect people with no human quirkiness or realness. That’s not to say they didn’t have problems, and that they didn’t have compelling motivations, but I didn’t find them nearly as relatable. In particular, Eleanor remained too guarded. Her character seemed more like a flat “tiger mom” stereotype to me. EEAAO didn’t have this problem. Evelyn and Joy had imperfections for miles… like everyone else! To take EEAAO’s mother-daughter relationship, and basically set it in the Matrix… brought me almost too much joy to process. Perhaps I relate so much to Evelyn and Joy because one of the writers and co-creators of this movie, Daniel Kwan, like me has a Taiwanese mother on whom he modeled Evelyn. He also grew up in America, making us both second generation Taiwanese. The very next day after I went to see the movie for the first time with my friend, I made my own parents go see it with me. My mom and I did not have quite the same catharsis as Evelyn and Joy did (my mother’s favorite part of the movie was the butt plug fight), but it did make me feel better knowing she had watched it and seen what I had, even if she might understand it differently.
My mother can never find the words to say something as simple as “I love you” either. Her showing love is her telling me I need to take care of myself better. It was a new experience to see something so intimate accurately mirrored onscreen at a theater.
I left this movie in awe of the Daniels– Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the directors and writers of EEAAO. How could they have made a movie so confusing that made so much sense? (I will say to anyone that was unable to follow the story, the pieces fit together a lot better upon the second re-watch. And now that I’ve watched it seven times, the pieces fit together almost too well.)
It’s important for “weird” films to exist because PEOPLE. ARE. WEIRD. Sorry. It’s true. You’re not immune. Nobody acts like a Disney prince or princess unless their brain has been surgically removed. What I like about these kinds of “weird” movies is that they amplify your neuroses and make you realize how absurd your problems really are. Most people’s problems are not that their child has been kidnapped, or their prince hasn’t come, or their dream wedding has been ruined by their evil stepmother, or that Tom Cruise has just crashed through their roof. Life just isn’t that fun. Not to say those kinds of things don’t make a great story, because they very much do, but relatable? Not as much. Sure, we probably aren’t going to find out our husband of twenty-plus years has suddenly been taken over by the Alphaverse version of him and he takes out a room full of security guards with his fanny-pack and that your Alphaverse daughter is out to murder you like she has many times and verses over… BUT.. somehow… I find these narratives more realistic than Tom Cruise crashing through my roof. Just saying. Some, if not most of the film’s bizarre elements seem to exist at first only as a gag, such as hot dog fingers and the talking raccoon, Raccacoonie, but as the story evolves, it becomes more and more obvious that those elements are integral to the characters’ emotional journeys. The hot dog fingers that Evelyn and Deirdre have are at first nauseating to Evelyn once she takes over her multiverse body, which leads to a rift in Evelyn and Deirdre’s relationship. Once Evelyn realizes hot dog fingers means people learned to get really prehensile with their feet, she is able to defeat Deirdre, physically, and with love, in her dimension. It also carries an all-important message of not letting looks dictate your treatment of other people. Raccacoonie is at first a throwaway gag, but it becomes clear how attached chef Chad is to his pet raccoon, and when Evelyn accidentally tears them apart, she helps them bring them back together and make both of them whole again, gaining more empathy for their seemingly peculiar relationship.
THE “CRAZY” FACTOR
This film, in its weirdness and craziness, did not make me more weird, crazy, or determined. It made me more optimistic. I knew this was exactly the kind of movie I aspired to make in my wildest dreams- one in which the absurdities of peeing yourself and eating chapstick are central to the plot and the more random, the more the story developed and became central to the heart and characters’ experiences. And here it was, fully formed, and playing in a theater in front of me- and even other people! This was proof that the world was changing. There was a market, and therefore, a possibility of backing, for a crazy-ass Asian American movie with loads of heart that was determined to take you on the most insane ride beyond what your brain imagine. I could make a crazy movie like that? And people will give me money to do it? And then go see it? Really??? Listen… I am a crazy person. I am the first to admit it. I am incredibly proud to admit it. But the words “crazy” and “Asian” have never really gone together… unless you’re Kevin Kwan.
Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” – and in particular its film adaptation in 2018 – kind of started this whole Hollywood revolution. Although revolution perhaps isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s more of a slow slide, unrecognized and underappreciated until it curves in the right way at the right time. When “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in 2018, it was the first movie since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 to feature a majority Asian cast. While the narrative representation had its limitations, it was a giant step in the right direction. It showed that Asians could carry a movie… and their neuroses could be central to the narrative. It was that exact movie that Ke Huy Quan saw which made him realize he could have a chance in Hollywood again. Now, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” took the neurotic, and turned the dial up to eleven. Exactly what I was waiting for. As a Taiwanese American who loves to embrace the weird in everything, I was absolutely head-over-heels in love. Googly eyes, talking raccoons, hot dog fingers, butt plugs- I’m sure you’ve heard all about it already.
I watched the Oscars this year solely to continue the journey I had embarked upon over a year ago following this movie. Let’s start with the first win of the night, Ke Huy Quan. He was the actor I was the most excited to see when I first went to see the movie, and it was clear right from the first scene that his character would be major, and a sweetheart. Exactly what I had hoped for. It turns out Ke is a major sweetheart as well. In every interview I’ve seen, he gushes about how lucky he is to have this opportunity and work with these amazing people. He makes it clear how much this role means to him, especially since he has gone without acting opportunities for so long. He really gave his all to Waymond Wang, who is arguably the most important character in the movie. He initiates the change in his wife Evelyn, who takes him completely for granted simply because he is sweet and therefore, in her eyes, timid. My favorite line in the movie comes from him. “You think because l’m kind that it means I’m naive, and maybe I am. It’s strategic and necessary. This is how I fight.” I don’t identify with that line so much as I aspire to be like Waymond. He is the rock of Evelyn’s life, that gets her out of trouble, is always there for her, and loves her unconditionally even when she doesn’t seem to love him. She learns, as I have, that it’s okay to be kind. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. I realized that that was exactly why I was afraid of being kind, and now keep that quote inside my head in order to inspire me to fight my fears with kindness. My favorite moment in the movie also comes from him, and it’s a very short, wordless scene in a little Waymond montage. He places googly eyes on a lantern, turns and sees his wife has caught him dead in the act, and runs away. He acts with such sincerity that you can tell he is innocently fighting back against the anger of his wife by making his life a little more silly. He is also the audience’s guide when things start getting unexplainable. He had the difficult job of switching between Waymond and his multiverse counterpart Alpha Waymond before the audience receives any kind of explanation as to what is going on. Quan gives the two characters such different physicality, vocal tone, and expressions that it is instantly obvious when the characters switch suddenly and without warning. All these are reasons why he deserved the Oscar and our hearts.
Evelyn learns, as I have, that it’s okay to be kind. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. I realized that that was exactly why I was afraid of being kind, and now keep that quote inside my head in order to inspire me to fight my fears with kindness.
The Daniels- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert won, as a team, best original screenplay, best directors, and consequently, best picture. EEAAO was their brainchild, their story, and they had a very specific vision. Their screenplay had depth and heart applied to a crazy wild ride of a multiverse story where the goal is to not make sense. By the end of the movie however, everything makes sense. It becomes clear that each wild scene accumulates to further the journey and metaphorically show Waymond/Evelyn/Joy’s messy relationship. Whether you think EEAAO “works” as a movie is ultimately your opinion, but you can’t argue that it’s a hodge-podge of previously “un-hodged” elements. Can you think of another movie that has the multiverse, crumbling marriage, second and first generation Asian incompatibility, push to be as random as possible, deliberately overwhelming, majority Asian cast? A major movie studio wouldn’t have made this picture. It would have been too dangerous. Especially recently, Warner Brothers has been canning entire finished movies such as “Batgirl” and two whole “Scooby Doo” movies, simply because it fears it won’t make as much money as they want it to make. Hollywood is getting more and more insufferable because it refuses to take chances on movies with new, untold stories, instead infusing lukewarm racial diversity into reboots and sequels and calling it good. Instead EEAAO was an indie surprise, backed by the company A24 (which won big at the Oscars this year with EEAAO sweeping and Brendan Fraser from their film “The Whale” won best male lead actor. “The Whale” also won best makeup and hairstyling). Once the Daniels were given the opportunity to make their concoction, they were also able to direct what was unequivocally their vision and make that clear to all of the cast and crew. In short, it’s one thing to have a vision. It’s another to get it across.
In short, it’s one thing to have a vision. It’s another to get it across.
Paul Rogers was the editor for EEAAO, and he deserves an Oscar for keeping up with the Daniels’ brains. Enough said. Ok, I’ll explain a little. The editing in this movie was AMAZING. There were supercut montages aplenty. There are four plus different verses that we are constantly jumping between, back and forth, back and forth within the same scene tens of times. To keep all of that straight as an audience member is hard enough, just imagine editing it together. The result was flawless. It’s hard to believe that the special effects were done by only about five people, all basically special effects virgins who learned while making the movie how to use the software on their laptops. Rogers deserves the Oscar above all for leading the team to accomplish a smooth, mind-melding journey.
Finally, Michelle Yeoh. She has been a background Hollywood fixture for almost forty years. She has always been unafraid to speak up for what she believes is right. She was one of the first to call out arguably one of the most famous Hollywood Asian-identifying actors of the 20th century, Jackie Chan, stating that the two are very good friends but that he remains a “male chauvinist pig.” When she won her Oscar, she was well-prepared: “Thank you. Thank you. For all the little boys and girls who look like me, watching tonight, this is the beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dreams, dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.” She inspired all Asians, not just ethnic Chinese, and all ladies, not just young ones, with her speech of inclusivity. Now, none of that factors in her acting ability. The character of Evelyn Wang in EEAAO is a difficult and multifaceted one. Yeoh herself was vocal about how thankful she was to have the opportunity. “I have been making movies for 40 years, but never had I seen anything so original and out there that would give me the opportunity to show everything I’m capable of.” Which is true. Typically, Yeoh has played side characters that aren’t allowed the depth, just the amazing kung-fu skills. In EEAAO, Yeoh had to be a beaten-down mother, terrible wife, Jamie Lee Curtis’ lover, spoiled movie star, Kung-fu master.
The scene relatively close to the beginning of the movie where Alpha Waymond suddenly takes over Waymond’s body and suddenly shows Evelyn her entire life starting from when she was born is the first time in the movie Evelyn has an emotion unrelated to “tired mother/laundromat owner.” She is in the elevator, glassy-eyed and completely bombarded with emotions. She barely registers Dierdre’s voice, or her husband or father/s for that matter. This leads into what is personally my favorite demonstration of Yeoh’s talent: a scene in which the four previously mentioned characters are going through a tax audit led by Dierdre. The catch? Evelyn’s attention is split between this dimension and the next. This is her first experience dealing with the multiverse, and she is torn between the fact that she believes her husband is screwing up their audit, and the fact that Alpha Dierdre is about to kill her in the other verse. When Alpha Dierdre finally cracks her head, she lets our a bone-chilling scream of terror that translates into our dimension… that quickly makes us turn to laughter as the reactions of the IRS agents and her own family are that of extreme confusion and embarrassment. The range of emotions displayed in that scene alone were enough to convince me that this was Michelle Yeoh’s most challenging role yet, an opportunity she grabbed and ran like crazy with, all the way to the Oscar stage.
While the case for EEAAO’s glory is clear for me, nobody should generalize, and I certainly won’t. Not all Asians love this movie, even though, *gasp*, it stars “our people!” Discourse on the internet can get way too racist, mean, and defensive. I feel there’s even been a slight backlash among some Asian Americans because people assume that every work by or about Asian Americans must be comprehensively and straightforwardly representative of every single Asian American experience. It’s an understandable hope, but it’s the wrong approach. Does every white person like Beetlejuice, since every cast member is white? No. Does every white person like Jurassic Park? Well… yes, but, you understand my point. This movie will always have its critics – it’s too niche, and everything has flaws! However, this Asian American appreciates everything about it. And if it’s not your type of movie, I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to see – or even create – something that means to you what EEAAO has meant to me.
Leilani Chang Johnson is a student at Lansing Community College who grew up reading books and staring at the television long before she could talk. Since adding speaking to her arsenal, she has not shut up since. Except when she is reading. Or watching television. Or obsessing over Bill Hader. Phases come and go but Bill Hader is forever. She is currently waiting by the door for her blu-ray copy of “Scooby Doo and the Cyberchase” to be delivered.
Waymond’s Pig references