It was not easily shaken—the delirium I felt while watching the new film and surprise box-office hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. Tears seeped out of me, and the end credits did little to stop the feeling. In the aftermath, I’ve been trying to figure out where that flood of emotion came from, and what it means.
Movies are, as we know, extraordinarily manipulative things. But Everything Everywhere All At Once is a particularly hypnotic experience, leveraging all of the pyrotechnics of kung-fu, sci-fi, and comedy into a heart-wrenching immigrant family drama. At its barest, the film—directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as the Daniels—is about a Chinese-American family that is being audited by the IRS. But on a deeper level it is about generational rifts. It is about the differences between parents and children—differences that are exacerbated in the case of immigrants by migration, language, or culture—and the impulse to stay in each other’s lives nonetheless.
At the film’s core is a leap of empathy: the millennial immigrant child’s imagining of their parent’s inner life. Everything Everywhere is the story of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese American woman almost unbearably burdened by an ailing laundromat, a tax audit, a happy-go-lucky husband named Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and a daughter named Joy (Stephanie Hsu) whose angst and queer sexuality she can’t seem to figure out, or even really acknowledge. The film begins with Evelyn setting up a birthday party for a demanding father (John Hong) and preparing for a visit to the IRS, leaving her unable to find time to speak with Waymond (who is considering divorcing her) or with Joy, who wants to introduce her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel) to her grandfather.
The film is about the differences between parents and children and the impulse to stay in each other’s lives nonetheless.
It’s telling that Evelyn is the film’s main character, even though the directors are closer in age to Joy. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, Scheinert described the movie as emerging, in part, from the Daniels’ attempt to understand why their parents find their work so strange, while Kwan, whose family life largely inspired Everything Everywhere, cites his mother’s confusion at, and then growing acceptance of, him pursuing a creative career as an impetus for the project. Kwan says of the film, “This is in some ways my way of saying thank you to my mom for constantly allowing space for the unexpected parts of us to exist in her worldview.” Like Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother, addressed to a mother
who cannot read, Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari, about his parents’ immigration story, and Disney’s Turning Red, in Everything Everywhere a younger generation projects itself into the mind of an older one as a generative fiction.
And what a fiction it is. Evelyn, it turns out, is not just a laundromat owner. She’s also the chosen savior of the multiverse, and she must learn to harness the skills from her selves in other universes (a blind singer, a martial artist-actress, a Hibachi chef, a lesbian) to stop Jobu Tupaki, an entity who became consumed by nihilism after being exposed to too many multiverses. Tupaki (spoiler alert) also happens to be her daughter Joy, and Evelyn’s quest to stop Tupaki parallels her quest to bridge the divide and sense of mutual alienation between her and Joy. To traverse this generational gap, to empathize across language and culture and experience, might take a multiversal brain-explosion, the film suggests.
Or, rather, that’s what it already takes. After all, is an immigrant narrative not already a multiverse narrative? Is there anything more sci-fi, whacked-out, fantastical, than uprooting your life and living in another country, left to face the counterfactual everyday—what if they had stayed—or—what if I had been born there instead of here? Is not speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, as the characters do in the film, already a kind of multiverse experience? In this sense, Everything Everywhere is part of a broader cultural moment, in which artists like Yoko Tawada, Mohsin Hamid, and Colson Whitehead are using magical realism as a tool to understand the emotional landscape of migration. Immigrant narratives lend themselves to that kind of abstraction, because there is an abstraction at migration’s root. Everything Everywhere All At Once literalizes the pre-existing surrealism of immigration, dramatizing its smallest minutiae into a more universal experience of alienation.
After all, is an immigrant narrative not already a multiverse narrative?
This multiverse journey also has the effect of allowing us to contemplate all of the other lives that Evelyn could have had if she had not chosen to immigrate. Everything Everywhere shuttles through many different genres as well as filmic citations––from comedy to Wong Kar-Wai, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to kung-fu films, from talking rocks to hands with hot dog fingers—to convey the weight of paths not taken. The most poignant of these is the metafiction that in an alternate universe Evelyn Wang is the real-life Michelle Yeoh, referenced by actual red-carpet pictures of the movie star at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians. Given that the film is written by a child of immigrants, showing us all these other lives seems to point to the creativity and talent we are so rarely able to see from our parents, bringing with it the absolutely crushing implication that our dreams might have had to come at the expense of theirs.
In the enthralling last forty minutes of the film, which is when the crush of tears started for me and did not stop, Evelyn has to leverage everything she can to stop Jobu Tupaki/Joy from being sucked into the black hole of nihilism/depression, represented comically as an everything bagel. Evelyn has to let her daughter go, but with kindness, in contrast to the harsh disowning that her own father inflicted on her. She can finally speak that which she had repressed earlier. Her journeys have allowed her to traverse the generational/familial divide. Despite all the universes that she has access to, she chooses to be here in this one. The end feels like a long-awaited hug from a parent—both an apology and a dose of demonstrative approval for the millennial child.
It’s almost too good to believe. And while I bawled like a maniac when Evelyn and Joy make peace, I wouldn’t have blamed Evelyn if she’d chosen to be Michelle Yeoh instead of herself. Part of the point of the film is conveying the bigness of Evelyn’s love for her family, and all she’s willing to give up for it. But imagine how unsettling it would have been if Evelyn had taken her newfound independence and decided to put herself first. I wonder about a version of the film where Evelyn decides she doesn’t want to sacrifice anymore, where she is her own main character—and maybe a bad mother—taking the chance to act on her creativity and getting the hell out of there. We don’t know; we won’t know. In the end, Everything Everywhere All At Once may be a fantasy about bridging generational divides, but it still features a deep unknown at its center—what an older generation actually wants. And it depicts a rift between generations that even now I find myself looking into, with the hope that art might narrow the gap, rather than expand it.
Simon Wu is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn.
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