Writer: Jelly Tongpaitoon
Editor: Brooke Shannon
Graphic Designer: Isabel Chin
On March 11, 2022, the directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) premiered their second directorial feature film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Instantly, the small indie Asian-led film was met with rave reviews for the stacked performances by Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and James Hong, to name a few. The film garnered attention due to its maximalist and obscure take on serious topics such as generational trauma, nihilism and existentialism. Since the film’s premiere, Everything Everywhere has touched the hearts of many and made them feel seen by exploring certain topics that have previously been dormant from the mainstream media to light.
One of the most potent impacts of this film is its incredible representation of the Asian community and the culture. Incidents of Hollywood disrespecting the Asian community and their culture has dated back to the industry’s origins. In 1938, white German-American actress Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of an Asian woman in The Good Earth, a role originally intended for Asian-American actress Anna May Wong. As part of her role, Rainer wore make-up that made her appear ‘more Asian.’ Similarly, white actor Mickey Rooney wore a fake tan, prosthetic buck teeth and taped his eyes back to racistly portray the character of Mr. Yunioshi, an exaggerated comic-relief character in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
These incidents continued into the modern age of film with Scarlett Johanson’s portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Emma Stone’s portrayal of Ng in Aloha (2015). Not only were opportunities already limited for Asian actors, but most characters were reduced to racist opportunities for white actors to plaster on yellow face, incorrectly portray Asian people, and use the community as the butt-end of Eurocentric jokes.
When asked about his decision to return to the silver screen, actor Ke Huy Quan (Waymond Wang) frequently thanks the success of the 2018 romance comedy blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians for reviving his hope for Asians in Hollywood. Quan was a child actor, starring in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. However, after a few years in the industry, he struggled being casted in movies due to Hollywood’s disregard for actors of color. But with Crazy Rich Asians being the first movie with an all-Asian cast, almost 25 years since The Joy Luck Club, Quan decided to make his return to Hollywood film almost 20 years later.
Making room for Asian actors is an important step towards making up for the years of mistreatment the community has received from Hollywood; so is breaking the barriers of harmful type casting. Since the dawn of time, harmful stereotypes of Asian characters have plagued Hollywood films. This includes stereotypes such as:
“The model minority,” which presents Asian characters as the often “shy nerd/geek” archetype used to foil against the main character.
“The silent asian,” which shows Asian characters having little to no dialogue to pass them off as mysterious and brooding, undermining any character development.
“The strict tiger mother,” a caricature that goes hand-in-hand with the model minority stereotype, likely conceived due to the differences between Eastern and Western parenting techniques. Hollywood’s generalization of Eastern parenting techniques being taboo or overly strict presents Asian cultures as evil and antagonistic just for being different, lacking any exploration into their nuances.
These demeaning roles restrict Asian characters from being written with the same amount of nuance caucasian characters receive. Instead of being allowed to tell their own story as their own person, they are instead more often used as plot devices or comic relief for the white characters’ stories and character arcs. Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t afraid to show its characters’ flaws, motives, and the qualities that made them distinct people. This is reflected in Everything Everywhere All at Once and most astoundingly in Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn.
“An aging Asian immigrant woman. When was the last time you saw that, right?” - Michelle Yeoh on her character Evelyn Wong.
Evelyn Wong, a middle aged immigrant Chinese woman, haunted by the fragments of her generational trauma, tries to keep a run-down laundromat afloat and her family together. Likely due to her childhood experiences, the amount of emotional baggage she carries leaves her struggling to communicate her feelings with her daughter. Like many immigrant people who move to the U.S in the hopes of a better life, she is hit with hardships, which leave her more broken than she was before.
As she travels through many universes, she can’t help but marvel at the person she could’ve become, but didn’t. Her initial instinct is to blame her husband Waymond–played by Quan–for convincing her to leave her life in China behind, against her parents’ wishes, and move to America. Her view that Waymond was too weak and kind to survive alone without her sets her up as our flawed hero, the type of character often seen through the lens of white protagonists. Her ability to recognise that she was wrong, and that love and compassion–something Waymond strongly displays–is what saves the day in the end, further cementing the reason Evelyn is to be interpreted as both complex and sympathetic.
The Daniels' ability to still leave room for the audience to find their own interpretation of the film’s message is admirable. Everything Everywhere’s dense plot creates room for whole communities, ones previously refused from artistic spaces, to feel seen. A riveting example of the many ways this film can be interpreted is through the lens of it being an allegory for menopause. In “Essay: The Menopause Multiverse,” Mona Eltahawy explains why to her, Everything Everywhere is a film tackling the subject of perimenopause. When referencing Evelyn's jump through her many possible lives in the multiverse, Eltahawy shares that despite the lack of media representation towards older women–especially women of color–Everything Everywhere provides a refreshing portrayal of the older, female experience as it was “the first time [she felt] someone has heard and given voice for the flood of ‘what if's’ that perimenopause has brought.”
Although the film has received a current audience score on Rotten Tomatoes of 86% and a near perfect critics score of 93%, the Internet was hit by yet another wave of discourse on the film when award season approached. This time, people were saying the film was overhyped or overrated. Once the indie project that was practically reserved to a smaller, cult-like audience hit the mainstream media, people began to turn on it. Gaining popularity among the mainstream audience is a double edged sword. On one hand, the artists on the receiving end gain more opportunities to continue their work on a larger scale. In the entertainment industry, exposure can make or break a career. The success and fame that followed Everything Everywhere allowed the directors the opportunity to work with large companies such as Disney and Universal Studios.
On the other hand, a plague which follows films such as Everything Everywhere is that reviews of the show will be so overwhelmingly positive that people will go into the theaters with higher expectations than usual. So once the general audience views this film with expectations that exceed to the sky due to it being so well received as a history breaking moment in film by the likes of the Asian community, it is no wonder why they would feel disappointed if the film itself didn’t meet their standards.
This phenomenon has occurred time and time again with films like La La Land or Birdman. All three films are original screenplays which challenged the traditional structure and style of filmmaking. These films broke the barriers of traditional filmmaking while telling poignant and nuanced stories. However, these movies were also subject to criticism for being overrated, unserious, and too flamboyant in its presentation compared to the other more serious and brooding films nominated in the same categories as them as awards season approached for each respective film. The ability for a film with a concept as wacky and vibrant as Everything Everywhere to leave viewers sobbing out the theater doors should be an indicator that an “oscar-worthy” film should be based on the heart of the film, not just its appearance.
Although the film was released over a year ago, Everything Everywhere All at Once will forever act as an indicator of the importance of diversity in films, both for audiences and Hollywood. The vital conversations that were sparked regarding the film’s messages, its representation and popularity shows that change is happening, hopefully resulting in a Hollywood where everyone’s differences are embraced.