By Marpheen Chann
Lights. Camera. Action! And boy, does “Everything Everywhere All at Once” have a lot of action. So much so that a person could find themselves experiencing residual vertigo as they snap back and forth, tumble and roll, through acclaimed directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s first foray into films about the multiverse, where multiple universes coexist with their own timelines.
The plot is relatively simple. Beneath the veneer of an action-packed multiverse sci-fi movie, viewers find depth – maybe even cultural critique – in the directors’ vision and in Michelle Yeoh’s performance. Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, an aging Chinese immigrant mother who taps into the skills of her alternate selves – namely kungfu skills from her kungfu master alternative self, and even some finger slapping skills from an alternative world where people have digits that are hotdogs. Evelyn navigates various timelines to battle a mysterious gravitational black hole (in this case, a “black bagel”), which threatens to suck all of the universes out of existence.
At the same time, Evelyn Wang fights the disappointment she perceives in her Chinese-born father, who only recently moved to America to live with her. He had disapproved of her marrying her husband Waymond, and of their move to America to start a laundry business. The relatively new presence of her father – in the life she’s built with her husband – causes her to worry that her life does not live up to his expectations and standards.
The opening scenes show her frantically sifting through piles and piles of receipts on her desk – the Wangs’ laundry business is being audited by the IRS for overdue taxes and potential fraud. In addition to problems with her father, she also has a visibly strained relationship with her American-born daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who is reluctant to introduce her girlfriend to her mother for fear of being embarrassed. Both the tax issues and her daughter’s sexual orientation are things Evelyn struggles to hide from her father.
These interweaving conflicts touch upon common, first-generation immigrant struggles to reconcile the expectations, hopes, and dreams of their foreign-born parents and family; the expectations, hopes, and dreams they have of their American-born children; and the struggles of American-born children of immigrants (second generation) to carve out their own identities, paths, and lives.
The first third of the movie can seem overwhelming as those threads take a backseat to the multiversal threat in the foreground (in the middle of the Wang family’s visit with the IRS tax auditor, mind you). Viewers could catch themselves casting (no pun intended) Michelle Yeoh’s character as another stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom” (overbearing, strict, and controlling; for more info, read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua).
The directors and actors in “Everything Everywhere All At Once” go beyond stereotypes in offering up this caricature of Asian “tiger moms,” using the sheen and shine of a sci-fi action thriller as a means of getting us to question our perceived reality. The film deconstructs what we think we know about the complexity of an immigrant Asian mother’s experience and reconstructs a narrative that invites empathy and understanding.
At the end of the movie, viewers may feel a sense of being duped and surprised but then may feel a growing sense of warmth and awareness as the true plotline – the real message – outshines the action sequences. Yeoh’s character’s greatest fear, at first, is what her Chinese father will think of her lesbian daughter. This has a real effect on her relationship with her daughter, and threatens their alternate lives in multiple timelines. The immigrant Chinese mother ultimately has to face her fears and decide whether her fear of her father outweighs her fear of losing her daughter.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” felt like nothing more than a wild, action-packed ride during the opening sections, but by the end I understood that the movie is about a multigenerational immigrant family reconciling and making amends across cultures. It is well worth the watch and earns four moons out of five from this viewer.