‘Here, all we’ll get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes sense.’
In an alternate universe, you are not an Oxford student reading Cherwell. In another alternate universe, you are a pinata hanging from a tree. In yet another alternate universe, you have hot dogs for fingers.
If the aforementioned hot dogs seem to be just one absurdity among many in Everything Everywhere All At Once, they should not be so lightly dismissed. The film’s exploration of the wacky, disordered multiverse raises profound questions about endless parallel selves and thus broader ideas about one’s identity.
I often feel as though I lead three completely different lives: my life back home, my life at university, and my life during my year abroad. Just as the film’s protagonist, Evelyn Wang, jumps across the multiverse acquiring skills from various realities, so am I the amalgam of seemingly irreconcilable selves which reveal themselves to be inextricably linked. We are not singular beings, but rather contain a multitude of versions. We are everything, everywhere, all at once. But at the same time, we are nowhere. We are not rooted in, nor do we belong in one place; we criss-cross worlds and often even cultures. Indeed, Daniel Scheinert, one of the directors, commented, ‘The whole immigrant story is kind of already a multiverse story because you exist in three or four worlds.’
Yet we would be mistaken in believing that we simply lead such lives because we actively shape them. We find our identities and create them. Evelyn’s daughter, Joy, exemplifies the collision of worlds. Torn between her American mindset, Evelyn’s traditional Chinese values, and an inability to speak in anything but broken Mandarin to Gong Gong, Joy’s identity does not fit into any singular category. Evelyn, her husband Waymond, and Joy are fundamentally multifaceted. Each chooses their own way to fight: Evelyn with her fists clenched, Waymond with his optimism, and Joy with her bagel (a way to become oblivious to ‘the pain and guilt that you have for making nothing of your life’).
Everything Everywhere All At Once was lauded as a breakthrough for Asian representation in Hollywood. But representation here is not just about race – it probes a yet more complex question of finding one’s identity in a different country. The film’s depiction of the troubled lives of Asian immigrants encapsulated my own experiences. I watched the film in September, drawn not by the critical acclaim, but rather by the mere fact that it featured English, Cantonese and Mandarin. My life at home was imbued with the co-existence of these three languages, all conspicuously absent during my year abroad in Paris. What I thought would be a comforting reminder of home ultimately challenged my identity more than any other film I had ever encountered.
Although Everything Everywhere All At Once centres on what it means to be a Chinese immigrant in America, as well as the nuances of the Asian-American experience, its portrayal of the multiverse voices a timeless, universal question: what if? What if Evelyn had listened to her father and had not married Waymond? What if she had not gone to America? Considering the ‘sea of every other possibility’ in our lives is overwhelming, almost paralysing. It is all too easy to ruminate over past decisions, to regret the path not followed, to pine for what we do not have. Like Evelyn, we fall for the temptation of thinking that the road not taken would have led to a beautiful life. A narrative in which the dreams we never followed become a reality. However, despite her countless other lives in the multiverse, Evelyn ultimately accepts her original universe and rebuilds her fractured family. Amidst the infinite, whirlwind chaos of the multiverse, love persists. Indeed, Joy is ultimately Evelyn’s daughter in every universe. Her mother is her rock (literally and figuratively). If ‘every tiny decision creates another branching universe’, as Waymond explains, every branching universe leads Evelyn and Joy to each other. At its core, the film reflects the power of love to overcome family conflict and generational divides. Love is why Evelyn cannot bear to kill her daughter and even chooses to protect Joy, who is the evil threatening the multiverse.
Cinema can create ‘a few specks of time where any of this actually makes sense’. For two and a half hours, the film pierces into the very heart of the complexity of the immigrant experience. And yet, Everything Everywhere All At Once does not illustrate how one’s self-interrogation never ceases because Evelyn returns to her original life and reconciles with her family, emboldened by her adventures across the multiverse. In contrast to this ‘happy ending’, the viewer, having been suspended in ‘a few specks of time’, discovers that perhaps things make even less sense than they did initially. For our identities are not fixed; we are never static. With each film, each experience, and each question, we evolve. It is the question that drives us, knowing that we can never find out who we truly are, but hoping instead that we can begin to accept who we may be today.