03 Feb “Everything Everywhere All at Once” adds momentum to AAPI representation
We are in a moment. An important moment for Asian American Pacific Islander and Desi representation in American pop culture. The film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” received 11 Academy Award nominations, in categories including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, TWO Best Supporting Actresses, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
The Internet, and especially the YouTube universe, is awash in accolades for the film. And yet, I suspect that many people who watched it were left scratching their heads and saying “whaaa? I don’t understand. I’m confused. What was that?”
Or maybe that was just me.
I watched it again and the storyline and characters, along with their many crazy variations in alternate “multiverses,” made a lot more sense. So if it left you puzzled, watch it again. And again. It will help.
The extra effort is worth it because “EEAAO” received the most number of Oscar nominations for last year’s crop of movies, and will likely win some, maybe most, possibly all of the categories it’s nominated in. More than a few critics claim it’s the best film of 2022, and some are even calling it the best film ever. It does deserve the accolades, though I’m not so sure it’s the best film ever. It’s up there with the best, that’s for sure.
So, what is “EEAAO” about?
It’s about Asian immigrants and their generation gap with American-born kids, about love and family values, and regret. It’s about how we often think to ourselves, “what if….” and changed the course of our lives/loves/careers. And oh yes, it’s about the existence of multiverses – a concept from science fiction and Marvel movies in which multiple universes exist with multiple version of all of us, with different life paths and different, well, superpowers. Yes, it helps if you’re a fan of Spiderman and Dr. Strange and Avengers movies.
It’s about a Chinese immigrant family who are suddenly tossed about in a crazy narrative of different worlds and insane characters and awesome martial arts and violence and monsters. And an apocalyptic Everything Bagel. Really. Although I was left dazed and confused at the end of my first viewing, I went with the flow the second time around and had a blast, like riding a roller coaster through a house of horrors.
The movie opens in a laundromat that seems an Asian American stereotype, owned by a Chinese family who live above the tumbling washers and dryers. The family is in financial trouble, and have to meet with the IRS about their taxes. The main characters are set in the first few minutes:
The mother is played by Michelle Yeoh, who plays a grim Asian mom, strict wife and concerned business woman swimming through a flood of receipts and paperwork. Her husband, played by Ke Huy Quan, is the meek and geeky, almost childlike dad. Stephanie Hsu is perfectly cast as the daughter, whose seething anger at her family results in her being a supervillain monster in parallel multiverses. Veteran actor James Hong plays Michelle Yeoh’s abusively strict dad who’s visiting the family at the laundromat. Hong, who is 93, could rightfully claim the title of hardest working man in show business away from singer James Brown, who used to call himself that. Hong has over 450 acting roles to his credit in movies and TV show – many which you’ve seen – starting in 1954. And Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s nominated as best supporting actress alongside the newbie Hsu, is Yeoh’s nemesis at the IRS office and through the multiverse… and her partner in one hilarious world that will stay with you for a long time.
Yeoh has been a veteran of Hong Kong and Chinese films including her American breakout film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In some of her many iterations through “EEAAO,” she uses her martial arts ability to great effect, but gets the chance to show a much wider range of abilities as an actor here including heartbreak and pure love.
If Ke Huy Quan looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he got his start in Hollywood with two blockbuster Steven Spielberg productions: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (as the perky sidekick kid Short Round) and “Goonies” (as the nerd Data). We never really got to see his career as he grew, because after a few more years he couldn’t even get auditions for any parts and instead he went to film school and work behind the camera for three decades. His casting, shining performance and moving life story as an Asian American actor is alone worth the ticket (or rental, or purchase) price.
He was inspired to return to acting by the hit 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” which proved a movie could succeed with a mostly Asian cast and storyline (Michelle Yeoh was a major character in that film too). “EEAAO” takes that success several steps further, by being a financial success and critical hit while breaking a bunch of conceptual barriers and Hollywood stereotypes. It’s certainly not like any hit movie we’ve seen before.
Thanks to the visionary leadership by the writing and directing duo of “The Daniels” – Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and dizzyingly split-second editing by Paul Rogers, “EEAAO” is a thrilling funhouse experience. (All three are up for Oscars.)
Yes, it may be a blur when you watch it. But watch it again and you’ll be rewarded and warmed by the message of the movie: that family matters, our community’s cultural values can hold us up even in the craziest of times, and that in the end, love — and forgiveness — does conquer all. With “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (which, surprise, Michelle Yeoh also starred in!) and now “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Asians are truly having a moment in American popular culture.
Let’s all enjoy the moment, and support this and other movies so the moment continues as momentum.
NOTE: An edited version of this post will be published in my “Nikkei Voice” column in the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the JACL.