‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is a deeply Asian American film

Placeholder while article actions load

To be an immigrant is to live in a fractured multiverse, one riven with geographic, temporal and psychical dissonances.

This is the central conceit of the new film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, professionally known as the Daniels. Many have discussed the conundrums of its “multiverse” setup, or the more recognizable family drama (the bittersweet mother-daughter relationship, the inevitable alienation between husband and wife), or the bizarre imagination at work (such as an alternative universe where humans have thick, floppy hot dogs for fingers). Yet few have addressed just what a specifically and deeply Asian American film this is — let alone why it is useful to think about Asian Americanness through these lenses.

This raucous romp of a movie offers a surprisingly profound meditation on what we might, at a time when our nation is facing various forms of racial reckoning, call it Asian-pessimism. Here, I’m playing off the school of thought known as Afro-pessimism, which holds that Black lives are endlessly inflected and informed by anti-Black animosity and experiences of pain and loss. These questions play out differently for Asian Americans, of course, but it’s important that we think through them, given the explicit and often virulent anti-Asian hate and violence in the last few years.

Asian American concerns operate as more than an ethnic detail in “Everything Everywhere”; they are the engines for the wild energies in the film. The Daniels draw from a long history of Asians in America and notable Asian American issues, from the Wang family’s laundromat (recalling the long, exclusionary history of Chinese immigrant labor) to the Western romance with kung fu mysticism to the “model minority” myth to the figure of the tiger mother. The film invokes, individualizes, multiplies, takes apart and then wackily reassembles these enduring tropes. The protagonist, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), pushes back with a vengeance against the narrative paucity of the same old stories we tell about Asian American lives. Evelyn gets cast and recast, insisting on the connections among multiple personas: the engrossed businesswoman, the kung fu master, the exhausted wife, the chanteuse, the tiger mom, the filial-and-failed daughter, the gifted mind-traveler and more. As a result, instead of locking down its subjects, as stereotypes are wont to do, the film uses its multiversal divagations to imagine alternative lives and versions of them. It’s as if the wild ride is meant to shake us free from habits of thought, to nudge us to, in the scholar Kandice Chuh’s phrase, “imagine otherwise.”

It’s not only that the multiverse acts as a metaphor for the immigrant Asian American experience, or a convenient parable for the dislocations and personality splits suffered by hyphenated (that is, “Asian-American”) citizens. It also becomes a rather heady vehicle for confronting and negotiating Asian-pessimism. And let’s face it, Asian Americans have a lot to feel pessimistic about: 300-plus years of virulent yet largely unacknowledged discrimination and marginalization that have culminated today in explicit acts of murderous violence. Asian Americans have been saying for decades, to the few who would listen, Hey, we’ve always faced damaging racism even as we are constantly accused of being “White-adjacent.”

In this film, Evelyn experiences an intergalactic version of what it means to have a target on your back, as she is pursued not only by social forces but also by Asian-pessimism itself. And the figure who most clearly embodies this persistent pessimism is Evelyn’s angry teenage daughter, ironically named Joy (Stephanie Hsu). In the plot, Joy possesses and is possessed by a furious soul named Jobu Tupaki, a universe-hopping villain who wants to track down and destroy Evelyn. Jobu Tupaki embodies the alien and the alienated. In one scene Jobu-as-Joy coyly asks a police officer trying to corral her, “Am I not supposed to be here, or is it that I cannot be here?” One cannot help but hear the question as a reverberating statement about Asian exclusion.

‘Shang-Chi’ doesn’t resist racist tropes. It just repackages them.

Joy/Joba brings with her the “everything bagel,” a consuming black ring and hole that that threatens to suck up everything and everyone into its void. It sums up the key insight of Asian-pessimism: that “nothing matters” in the face of pain and exclusion. The everything bagel is piled not with American riches and plenitude but with all the negativities of what it means to be, in Ronald Takaki’s phrase, a “perpetual stranger” in the world and to your own family.

Evelyn finds that to rescue her daughter and pull the world she knows back from the abyss, she has to battle her own disappointments. (In this, I hear Maxine Hong Kingston’s voice in “The Woman Warrior” when the young narrator tells us, after chapters of mythopoetic meditations on ancient Chinese legends, “My American life has been such a disappointment.”) All the emotional clashes in the film become skirmishes in which Evelyn has to access her kung-fu-multiverse self to fight off, literally, the law and the outlaws of all the universes hunting her down.

Yet the conclusion of “Everything Everywhere” suggests that the solution to Asian-pessimism is neither reactive violence nor exactly hope, but something in between. Despite the delicious pleasure of watching Yeoh revive her kick-ass “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” martial skills, the trope of kung fu fighting in this movie (including a silly nod to “Kung Fu Panda’s” Wuxi fingerhold) carries its own internal critique. In the face of chaos and utter nihilism, the final epiphany in the film, and for Evelyn, proposes that aggression is not the answer to the assault of social forces, whether they come in the guise of the Internal Revenue Service or intergalactic persecutors.

Evelyn is able to pull Joy back from the brink not by killing all who stand in her way but by reminding herself and her daughter of what it means to stand up for yourself without reciprocal violence (I answer your hate with my hate). This is a rather extraordinary claim: In our ever-fracturing and divided world, where antagonism breeds even more trenchant hostility, here is this movie about Asian American pessimism telling us that to give in to hate and vengeance is to give in to the seduction of believing that nothing matters.

Anti-Asian violence is often inseparable from misogyny

At the same time, the film is not touting some facile hope, either. Near the end, in an alternative universe, we see the mother and daughter as two sentient rocks telepathically speaking to one another. After the Joy-rock flings herself off a cliff, the Evelyn-rock follows, an act of self-erasure and a testament to fidelity. But in the “alpha” world of the first Evelyn, the mother manages to pull back the daughter from the edge of self-destruction, not by some grand declaration but by showing her what it means to possess precious tendrils of familial and loving connections in a world of inevitable grievances and disappointments.

Some viewers will undoubtedly want Evelyn to go through a greater conversion, to transform from tiger mother to cool American mom. But she does not. What she learns instead is to be able to say to her daughter, Yes, the world can be crushing, and I, too, have been judgmental of you, but I have spoken some truths to you as well, as only mothers can. And for all the pains and heartbreaks of this world, I choose to be with you.” What she learns is that the angry soul inside her daughter, a demon who chased her all over the film’s many worlds, was driven by both murderous rage and an equally desperate desire for reconnection. The hunt is also the search, and the hurt is also the love.

“Everything Everywhere” is about trying to figure out a response to an onslaught of hate, vengeance, resentment and persecution. It takes a kind of plasticity: to recognize that humanity is at once goofy and transcendent, that there can be beauty in a dysfunctional world, that clumsy hot-dog-fingered people can play an exquisite “Clair de Lune” on the piano with their toes. There’s a kind of hot-dog philosophy here, an insistence on quirkiness as a stay against the claustrophobia of pessimism. Evelyn begins the film confined by code-switching: balancing her commitments to a teenage daughter she can’t understand, a husband asking for a divorce just so he can get a little attention, a struggling business and a traditional Chinese father whom she is always placating. By the end she embraces these manifold states of being, which echo and intensify what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” as a strategy for moving forward. All the zany, distasteful, irreverent and at times scatological excursions dramatize the multiplicity and fragility of Evelyn’s daily life. Being able to parse and command all these worlds and modes seems a basic requirement for Asian American survival. It is both despite and because all of this that we are able to say to our loved ones and to our country: I still prefer to be here with you.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: