Why 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' feels more like reality than movie magic
Updated March 13, 2023 at 8:26 AM ET
I'll admit, this movie is a family hot pot of ridiculousness. From people with hot dog fingers to fight scenes with dildos, you couldn't blame Rick, my puritan movie partner (who I dragged to the theater with me), for throwing his hands up in flabbergast.
But even though my friends have described me as cold-hearted and the Grumpy Cat meme in real life, I was unexpectedly emotional while watching it.
This year's Oscars best picture winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a movie about parallelism. It centers on an alternate multiverse that reflects the real life of the movie's central family, and this family drama reflected my own life. Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) — who both swept awards season with Golden Globes, SAG awards and Oscars for their roles — are Chinese immigrant parents with a lesbian daughter. My parents are Chinese refugees from the Vietnam War, and I am their gay son.
The trailer sold the movie as a martial arts fantasy. Evelyn is an average Chinese mother who reluctantly becomes a superhero, jumping alternate worlds and absorbing powers to fight an evil villain. And it's true: Evelyn is constantly fighting — fighting the IRS in reality, and various villains in the multiverse.
But at its core, this movie is about the Asian American immigrant family. The movie centers around three people: Evelyn, her husband Waymond, and their daughter Joy. A circular mirror sets the first scene, reflecting back the family karaoking before microscoping us into their family home.
The messiness of this home, with receipts and laundry bags everywhere, is one in which no stranger would be invited into. But this messiness is what lies beyond the "saving face" of Asian American families, including mine; in Evelyn's case, the family-run laundromat is failing, her husband is getting ready to serve divorce papers, and her lesbian daughter is silently suffering from trying to gain her acceptance. In our family, vehement fights across bloodlines or the inability to finance a class trip were to be kept inside the household.
The multiverse mirrors the storyline of Evelyn's reality. But the storyline of Evelyn's family also reflected my own life. The family's laundromat is set in Southern California, where I grew up. Even the mixture of Chinese dialects and English in the movie reminded me of how we also spoke an amalgamation of languages — Chiuchow, Cantonese and English in our case, or "Chinglish" as my friends liked to call it.
It's not lost on me the irony of Evelyn running a public laundromat when she refuses to air her family's dirty laundry. When she brings her father with her to the IRS audit, the guilt of disappointing him led her to deny that there's anything wrong. "No no, the laundromat isn't getting foreclosed, it's actually expanding."
Like my own family, I recognize this denial. Evelyn, this immigrant mom, struggles with communicating her feelings. When she fails to introduce Becky as Joy's girlfriend to the grandfather, she tries to apologize but tells Joy to eat healthier because she's getting fat. Like Evelyn and a lot of Asian families I knew, food was always the substitute for feelings. Whenever my mom called, instead of asking how I was, she always asked "did you eat yet?"
Like Joy, I struggled with not knowing how to say the word "gay" in my own language, so I came out to my own mother by saying "I don't like girls; I like guys." Upon realizing what I had said, her response was: "Did you eat something rotten?"
When faced with the reality of her business and relationship failures, Evelyn is then called upon to fight in the multiverse. Little does she know that these multiverse fights are emblematic of her fights in real life.
She battles alpha assassin Deirdre while also battling IRS auditor Deirdre from trying to foreclose on her business. She fights her alpha father while also fighting for approval from her real-life father, who disowned her for leaving to the US with Waymond. And she has her ultimate test against Jobu Tupaki — the alpha version of her daughter — while also fighting Joy, who disappoints her for not becoming a better person than she herself could be. Jumping worlds not only helped Evelyn learn new moves, but also helped her gain perspective.
The trials of a long-term relationship
Interestingly, Evelyn doesn't fight Waymond. Instead, in the multiverse, alpha Waymond is fighting by her side. And there are parallels between alpha Waymond and husband Waymond. When Waymond tries to talk to Evelyn about the divorce papers, he says she always gets pulled away — just as the hands of alpha assassin Deirdre literally pull her away. When alpha Waymond says he had to go because he didn't find the right Evelyn, it shows how husband Waymond feels about his wife.
In one of these worlds, set against the glamorous backdrop of a movie premiere, Evelyn is a movie star who gets to see what her life could have been like without Waymond. But in this world, alpha Waymond is the long lost (now debonair) love waiting for her — or maybe she was led to him.
After the movie premiere, set in a moody Wong Kar Wai backlit alley, they have the kind of existential talk that every decades-long couple has where we confront our past, recognize our worth and commit ourselves to the future. Evelyn had always thought of herself as the fighter, the one to make things happen. To Evelyn, her husband was a weak but kind man who wouldn't survive without her. Alpha Waymond addresses this view; to him, his kindness helped him survive, just like her fight. And even though he is a rich man in this world, he would have enjoyed "just doing laundry and taxes" with Evelyn. Reliving all her old memories, she realized he was everything she needed.
Like that scene, the question of "what if" haunted us. Evelyn questioned what her life would have been like had she not gotten in that cab to move to the U.S. for Waymond. As a Chinese immigrant, my mom, with only a high school education, had to start over in a new place where she didn't know the language. The decision would be worth it if her first-born attained the life she had hoped for. And as a lifelong Californian, I wondered what I was doing when I passed on a dream job to live on the East Coast, where seasons exist.
I fell in love with Rick, my movie partner, the moment we randomly slow danced in my barely furnished East LA apartment. Through the course of our non-linear relationship, all those "what ifs" weighed heavily on me — when we had broken up, when I had been unhappy at my job or when our lives became an endless loop of red wine and The View.
"Think it through, please don't give me false hope," alpha Waymond said to Evelyn. "Are you sure? I don't want to go back to what we were," I said to my now husband before we agreed to get back together. My mind went back in time to that slow dance in my East LA apartment.
Rick and I continued our existential talk. That we shouldn't punish our partner for our own past trauma and insecurities. That the journey can be unexpected and turbulent. And that with perspective, we wouldn't mind spending the rest of our lives drinking red wine and watching The View.
The journey of acceptance
Given the chance to kill Jobu, Evelyn couldn't live without her daughter either. Initially, Jobu was the "evil" that embodied Joy, a reference to how Evelyn views Joy's queerness. To me, it's serendipitous that the central fight is between Evelyn and Joy — mother and daughter on the screen, mother and son in my life.
But this "evil" that came to be is explained by alpha Waymond, who said that Evelyn pushed Joy beyond her limits to become Jobu. Yet Jobu isn't seeking to destroy or kill the superhero Evelyn in the traditional comic book sense; she's asking Evelyn to join in the darkness of a black hole. This black hole leads everyone to an infinite depression. If anyone were to join Jobu, it's the immigrant Asian mom who regrets her whole life.
Faced with this choice, Evelyn decides to fight — fight to prevent Joy from leaving her life. She questioned how her own father could easily let go of Evelyn, because she couldn't do the same with Joy. When Jobu shows up at the laundromat, Evelyn protects Becky by shooing her away from the fight, a small gesture that acknowledges the girlfriend, and an Asian nod to keep other people away from family drama.
Evelyn eventually saves Joy, with help from the grandfather and Waymond as the foundational support to prevent the whole family from going into the black hole. In the end, Evelyn introduces Becky to her father using the Cantonese word for "girlfriend," a scenario I could only wish for myself.
A fairy tale ending
On the surface, Everything is a fantasy. And for me, the movie is grounded in reality up until the very end when movie magic really happens. The idea that a Chinese kid, a child of immigrants, would receive any form of apology from their parents is a fairy tale. Because the reality for me is that my mom, the one that conveniently forgets her son is gay, let alone married a Black man — is stuck in an alternate world of early dementia where she constantly asks: "Did you eat? How's work? Do you have a girlfriend yet?"
On repeat, every time she calls, she's still holding out hope that her son will find that one girl to settle down with. Because in her world, as an immigrant mother:
hope is everything to her
denial is everywhere she looks
and all at once, she's living the life she had dreamed of.
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