By Soon Lee: I first watched Everything Everywhere All at Once at an Auckland cinema on April 19, 2022 and it has been living in my head ever since. I saw it again on the big screen before its Auckland run ended. I have never done this before.
It is the most remarkable movie I have seen in years. It straddles multiple genres, Science Fiction, you can ‘Verse Jump’ to access the skills and abilities of alternate universe versions of yourself, Drama, exploring family relationships, Action, with spectacular martial arts fight sequences, lowbrow Comedy, with dildo and buttplug fights, all in a surprisingly cohesive whole. It is also a quintessential Chinese-American immigrant story. I can talk about its technical brilliance like its use of visual symbology, aspect ratios, or color palettes, and I will. But none of that brilliance matters without the core story. At heart Everything Everywhere All at Once is about finding meaning amongst the noise and chaos of modern life. It’s about the power of kindness. Everything Everywhere All at Once is the movie we didn’t know we needed in 2022.
If you haven’t already watched Everything Everywhere All at Once, I urge you to see it at your soonest convenience before proceeding. Be one of today’s Lucky 10,000. Spoilers follow.
Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wang who with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) live above their failing laundromat. Most of the movie unfolds over a single day. Evelyn is busy trying to cook breakfast for her disapproving father Gong Gong (James Hong) just arrived from China for Chinese New Year, while trying to get her taxes ready a meeting with IRS Auditor Deirdre (Jamie-Lee Curtis) later that morning. Auditor Deirdre has placed a lien on their laundromat. There are also last minute preparations for the Chinese New Year party the Wangs are hosting that evening. All this while also trying to run their laundromat. Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has just arrived with her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). Evelyn has issues with Joy’s relationship with Becky and doesn’t want Gong Gong to know. Joy meanwhile provides an example of reverse nominative determinism: Joy is joyless. Evelyn’s relationship with her daughter Joy is dysfunctional, as is her relationship with her father Gong Gong. Her relationship with husband Waymond is not much better, thinking him flighty: he dances with laundromat customers, sticks googly eyes onto random items including laundry sacks. Evelyn’s life is frenetic and overwhelming. Everything it seems is happening all at once, none of it good.
An aside here. The Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan) who co-wrote and co-directed Everything Everywhere All at Once have said that they delayed release of the movie (principal photography was completed just as lockdown began in 2020) so that it could be experienced on the big screen with an audience. Watching this on the big screen is qualitatively different. Everything Everywhere All at Once attempts to simulate the overwhelming informational firehose of online life constantly demanding our attention. It’s relentless. But if you were to watch it on your own device, you can pause anytime to take a breather, and/or rewind to catch something from the firehose you may have missed. That’s not possible when watching it on the big screen. You are on a rollercoaster ride trusting the implicit contract you have made with the makers of the movie will pay off, that you won’t be left confused.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a lot, but the movie walks a fine line, almost overwhelming us without going over that line. We get a taste the chaos that is Evelyn’s life. But if we are confused, we don’t stay that way for long. Behind the chaos and noise projected at us underlies deep structure and purposeful storytelling. It uses both techniques of “show” and “tell”, and repetition. If you are confused, for example by how ‘Verse Jumping’ works (the method to access your alternate universe self and gain their abilities), that information is repeated in different ways, incluing those who missed the first time, while conveying additional information to those who got it the first time.
As Evelyn and Waymond ride the elevator to their IRS meeting, Alpha Waymond takes over and tells Evelyn that she is his hope to defeat Jobu Tupaki, a grave threat to the multiverse. All she has to do is to follow a set of instructions starting with turning right on exiting the elevator and going to the janitor’s closet instead of left to the auditor. The Call to Adventure is declined. But that doesn’t last long as Evelyn is drawn in and has to learn to Verse Jump in order to save herself. It turns out the threat to the multiverse Jobu Tupaki is a version of Evelyn’s daughter Joy. Too much Verse Jumping broke Joy so now she experiences everything everywhere all at once, gaining chaotic powers that she’s unleashing upon the multiverse. Evelyn has to learn to Verse Jump and level up sufficiently to be a match for Joy.
Yeoh, Quan and Hsu get to portray different multiverse versions of Evelyn, Waymond and Joy in a thrilling chaotic ride into multiple universes and multiple genres. We get thrown into different alternate universes as the story unfolds, but are rarely lost thanks largely to the technical brilliance of the production. The full filmmaker’s toolkit is used to great effect to delineate between the universes so that we are immediately oriented. Each universe has its own look and feel, from the pink pastels of the Hotdog Universe to the slow-mo effects of the Movie Universe reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (the Daniels wear their influences proudly). Color palettes, aspect ratios, set designs are all harnessed to make each universe distinct.
The visual elements not only allow us to distinguish between the multiverses, but they are also integral to another facet of the movie: this is a Chinese-American immigrant story and Chinese symbology is writ large. The circle is a consistent motif seen throughout. The movie opens with the family unit Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy seen in happier times reflected in a round mirror. The laundromat has many washing machines and driers, every one has a round door. The concepts of nihilism and optimism explored in Everything Everywhere All at Once are embodied by the symbols for Yin (darkness) and Yang (light) which together form a circle. In Everything Everywhere All at Once Yin and Yang, the Chinese concepts, are represented by Western objects. Yin is black with a white center (the Everything Bagel) while Yang is white with a black centre (the Googly Eye). At the climax of the movie, Evelyn fixes a Googly eye onto the middle of her forehead, opening a third eye and an awakened consciousness.
Writer Jacqueline Woodson says, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become”. Everything Everywhere All at Once portrays the Chinese-American immigrant experience in detail, and by doing so makes it more easily relatable to everyone. Code switching is common in immigrant families, where you switch languages depending on who you are talking to, sometimes within the same sentence. How you communicate says a lot about your relationships. The Wang family speak English, Mandarin-Chinese, and Cantonese-Chinese. Evelyn speaks to her father Gong Gong in Cantonese-Chinese but to her husband Waymond in Mandarin-Chinese, indicating Evelyn and Waymond came from different backgrounds, which could have added to Gong Gong’s disapproval of Waymond. Joy speaks predominantly English, having only a few words of Mandarin, but apparently no Cantonese so when Joy tries to talk to Gong Gong it is Mandarin she attempts with. The few words of Mandarin I have were enough that I winced watching Joy try to formulate a sentence, try to contort the few basic words of Mandarin in her vocabulary to convey the desired meaning. Joy, in halting Mandarin asking Gong Gong how his flight was literally translates to “Your airplane, good or not?” Most viewers won’t speak Mandarin, but it didn’t matter. The awkwardness of that exchange is obvious. We can all understand trying to communicate and failing.
And character arcs? Evelyn and Joy have them and their relationship form the core of the story but with Waymond, Everything Everywhere All at Once performs filmic aikido. Waymond is a flighty, ineffectual husband and father when we first meet him but by the end is a warrior who fights with kindness, worthy to be partner to Evelyn’s Verse Jumping hero. But the character of Waymond hasn’t changed at all. The Waymond at the start of the movie is the same Waymond at the end. His character arc happens solely in our minds, in the way we perceive Waymond, because the way we see Waymond changes as the movie plays out, until we finally see him as he truly is.
The family drama plays out against a backdrop of multiple universes and much wackiness. I mean, can we talk about the fight sequences? An early high is the fannypack fight, which takes the Chinese Dad accessory to the next level. The inspiration is clearly Hong Kong action movies specifically the ones of Jackie Chan that typically feature the use of weapons improvised from everyday objects. And what is more everyday than a fannypack? Brothers Andy and Brian Le of Youtube channel @MartialClub are fight choreographers as well as performers, drawing inspiration from Hong Kong action movies. In Everything Everywhere All at Once they not only get to showcase their skills, but also get to fight in a scene with Michelle Yeoh who first came to prominence in the Hong Kong action movies they loved, thus completing the circle.
Everything Everywhere All at Once features a genuine ensemble cast, every actor is exceptional. Michelle Yeoh turns in a career defining performance showcasing her ability for comedy, action, and drama. Ke Huy Quan back after nearly two decades away from the screen is the heart of the story: “The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” A simple message. But so powerful. Stephanie Hsu who I knew from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” puts in a breakout performance as Joy/Jobu. Jamie-Lee Curtis as Deirdre the unlovable IRS auditor we come to love. And what more needs to be said about James Hong, who boasts over 400 actor credits spanning almost seven decades?
And THAT rock scene. If you had said that I would be laughing and crying at a scene featuring two rocks, with no sound save the blowing wind, I would have been incredulous. But that scene would not have worked without us having come to care deeply about Evelyn and Joy. The preceding scenes were filled with noise and mayhem, so by the time we come the rock scene with its quiet serenity, it is much needed relief. It is also the first time Evelyn and Joy aren’t fighting. For once they can just be rocks and “talk” to each other. Just be a rock.
This is a movie of contrasts. The movie’s deeper explorations of meaning are juxtaposed with the absurd. On one hand we are trying to find meaning when nothing matters, while on the other are fights involving buttplugs, and dildoes, not to mention a universe where humans have hotdogs for fingers, or a universe where a raccoon can manipulate a human like a puppet a la “Ratatouille”, to a scene with silent rocks filled with emotion. It shouldn’t work, but it somehow does, and that is a large part of its brilliance.
Though I loved EEAOO from my first watch, I wasn’t sure if it had mainstream appeal. As an immigrant of Chinese descent, who loves Science Fiction, who grew up watching Hong Kong action movies, it felt like Everything Everywhere All at Once was made especially for me. A multi-genre movie about Chinese-American immigrants encompassing Science Fiction, Drama, Action, Comedy, in a wacky, sprawling package from A24, an independent studio known for arthouse-style movies? That’s the sort of movie that becomes a cult classic, not a blockbuster. But Everything Everywhere All at Once has been the little movie that could: it has resonated with so many, its appeal surprisingly wide. Everything Everywhere All at Once has received critical accclaim and has attracted enough of an audience to become A24’s highest grossing movie. To my surprise and joy it has eleven nominations for the Academy Awards, and during this awards season has been raking in multiple nominations and wins. It would make me tremendously happy if Everything Everywhere All at Once won all the Oscars but that is unlikely. The Academy votership has traditionally preferred worthy dramas, typically bypassing genres like Science Fiction and Comedy which Everything Everywhere All at Once clearly is. Any Oscars it wins would be icing on the cake but really, it doesn’t need them. It is self-evident that Everything Everywhere All at Once is a highwater mark movie, in any genre. It is an instant classic will be studied in film schools for years to come. Everyone in the cast and crew who collaborated to create “Everything Everywhere All at Once” should be immensely proud of what they achieved with this movie. I’m going to watch this again.