The Asian community was repeatedly promised a film that would provide Asian representation in Hollywood.
The film Crazy Rich Asians, set in my country—Singapore—and with a 100% Asian cast seemed like it would fit the description. It was instead an unrelatable mess filled with billion-dollar bachelor parties and expansive estates: the central conflict being that the super hot trust fund baby’s family may disapprove of you as a potential wife. It represented me as well as a zebra crossing represents a zebra. The colours were the same but everything else was frustratingly unrecognisable.
Then, it was supposed to be Shang-Chi. The first Asian superhero! But again, I—understandably—found it difficult to relate to the plot of: “my father is an evil dictator with the powers of an alien superweapon and he tortured me as a child to be a fighting machine”. While it delivered the important message that Asian dudes have hot abs too, it needed more.
Then came Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO).
Who would have thought that a movie about jumping through universes, hotdog fingers, and a racoon that controls a chef Ratatouille-style would be the film that captures so much about what it means to be Asian. If you have not watched it, please do, and prepare some tissues.
Disappointing your parents. I would never dream of claiming it as an exclusively Asian experience. However, in a culture known to produce ‘tiger mums’ and ‘helicopter dads’, this theme hits home hard. Perhaps it is because family values are heavily emphasised, and generations are culturally inclined to pin their hopes and dreams on their progeny. Or it is because instead of discussing the weather with strangers and friends alike, we competitively compare our children (our height, grades, schools, incomes, and partners). Parental pressure has always been a consistent theme in Asian media, from Bollywood’s 3 Idiots to Korea’s SKY Castle. In small doses, it feels good to be loved and supported by your parents. E.E.A.A.O. captures the feeling of when one has an overdose. Joy feels shirked and unloved by her mother Evelyn. In a classically Asian manner, Evelyn has replaced “I love you” and “I’m sorry” in her dictionary with “You should eat more” and “Why don’t you ever call?”. Throughout the course of the film, we also find that Evelyn herself has suffered from the disapproval of her father and highlighting the presence of an intergenerational trauma cycle. This is why when Evelyn does express her love to her daughter in the end (as a rock, or when they’re getting sucked into a black-hole bagel), millions of traumatised Asian children worldwide experience a moment of deep catharsis. Some have even joked that Michelle Yeoh deserves an Oscar just for portraying the inconceivable idea of an Asian mother apologising convincingly. Such a collectively shared Asian experience being touchingly portrayed in the film is one of the reasons why this film is a gem. For those who have felt underappreciated and overly scrutinised, this film offers both an apology to the children and an explanation to the parents. In the end, in the small specks of time we get to spend in this ever-expanding multiverse, we would still like to spend them being surrounded by the people we love.
For an Asian kid, there is only one critic harsher than your parents. Yourself. Maybe it is the internalised pressure from said parents. Maybe it is the inherently competitive cultures many of us hail from. Maybe it is an overemphasis on hard work and an underemphasis on balance. Honestly, if a multiverse version of my partner told me I was chosen because I failed at everything I have ever done, I would not know what to do with myself. Evelyn similarly struggles with her life choices. Was she doomed to living the rest of her days frustrated and burnt out, running a failing laundromat embroiled in tax issues? Through her going to different universes she sees what she could have been – including a world where she realises her fantasy of being a movie star. But of course, with every universe comes its own regrets. She does not end up with her current husband, Waymond. In a heart-wrenching Wong Kar Wai-esque scene, Waymond breaks her and the audience’s hearts when he says: “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” Sure, we all want to be “movie stars”. Especially here in Oxford, the default is that you are ambitious and want to seize the world. While we are all striving to be the best, EEAAO reminds us that appreciating the magic in every day, and the blessings we do have, is sometimes all that we need. Put some googly eyes on your bags to laugh a little. Dance when there is good music. Appreciate the laundry and the taxes of life.
Waymond Wang. Waymond Wang is proof that empathy and kindness is strength, not weakness as some Andrew Tate-esque followers of toxic masculinity might suggest. When we first met Waymond he seems like the classic bumbling idiot. He is carefree while Evelyn is a ball of stress. But by the end of the movie, we see that this is his superpower, not his weakness.
As Waymond says: “When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything… I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.” He’s right. His ability to empathise and love is what gets through to Evelyn, enabling her to save Joy. His ability to find happiness and spread happiness is a superpower. As a man, representations of what it means to be powerful and to save the day have always been about stoic and often muscle-bound aggression. Take Superman or James Bond. For Asian men, the media has given us the martial arts icons of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Waymond initially saves the day with his fighting skills as well, in a hilarious spin on Bruce Lee’s nunchucks technique using his fanny pack. His ultimate power lies not in his fists but in his heart. He shows that to save the day, it’s not about being physically imposing or knowing how to smash your way out of anything. You don’t need to be a calculated, cold Michael Corleone or a brash, aggressive Scarface. You need to empathise with the people around you. I have had an abundance of Kung Fu stars show me that I can fight, in a million different martial arts forms. Waymond, portrayed movingly by Ke Huy Quan, showed me how I can love too.
Waymond’s doodly eyes show that his perspective on life has always been the solution to Joy’s (and our) existential dread. Joy’s “everything bagel” black hole is black on the outside with white in the centre. It shows a dark view of the world, where most of it is filled with corruption and evil. Waymond’s doodly eyes are the perfect opposite, with a white outer layer and a black centre, showing that life is filled with mostly goodness. His eyes were first portrayed as a sign of his childishness. Evelyn angrily scolds him, telling him not to put them everywhere, making a mess. When Evelyn puts the doodly eye on her forehead during the climax, showing that she has embraced his way of life, she sees what we see. That the eyes are not a sign of weakness, but the philosophy that will save us from our humdrum, mortal dread. The philosophy of seeing the fun side of things, of making the everyday interesting, and of finding the good in the bad.
The film itself is supposed to be an attack on your senses. Jumping from universe to universe, with intense colours, choreographed fight scenes and hilarious goofs, all while our protagonists are hurtling toward the end of reality. At its climax, however, it gives us a scene in a universe where life did not form. Our protagonists become two rocks, speaking to each other in subtitles. The theatre that was bursting with noise just seconds ago is left in a deafening silence. It is in this silence that our hero, Evelyn, gets her moment of clarity, and manages to get her message across. That Joy is loved, and while everything is nonsense, love is the meaning of the universe. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being overwhelmed in the modern world. With assignments, the never-ending doom scroll, and a million television shows on a billion streaming platforms, one could easily feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, we just need that moment of stillness, of clarity. To breathe and just… be a rock. This might be especially important in the Asian context. Those who have been inside an authentic Chinese restaurant could attest that the interlaying sounds of chefs clanging pots, waiters shouting dialects and customers having loud conversations are part of the experience. Those who have watched Chinese news or any Japanese or Korean game show would tell you that every inch of the screen is filled with blaring text or reaction shots. Breathe. Just be a rock. Maybe the way to solve our own doom spiral is to find that moment of stillness for ourselves.
EEAAO is a boundary-breaking, deeply entertaining film that deserves all 11 of its Oscar nominations and more. For the Asian community, it is the first true piece of Hollywood representation that has resonated with us. For me, it’s the film that showed me my past, present and future. What I could be, what I should be and what I am. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.