starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis
written and directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
by Walter Chaw When I tell my parents' story to myself, I never tell it as a love story. It's an immigrant story--a typical one, I've come to learn through reading, yes, but mainly through the films of Edward Yang. And it's a story about a broken family, where coldness and mulishness led to lost childhoods, resentments, and, for me, estrangement from my parents to varying degrees throughout my adult life. I became a writer because it was where mental illness and neurodivergence directed me. I needed therapy, and my family didn't approve of that for me. Not even after my suicide attempt. I know my choice of major disappointed my parents, and I think I chose it in part to disappoint them--they who liked to brag about me while doing their best to "break" my sense of self-worth and strip away any pride I had in my accomplishments. I still don't know how to rewire myself to take good news as good rather than as the preamble to a lecture on my stupidity and arrogance. I'm broken. I'm working on fixing it.
My parents arrived in the United States in the early-'70s, about five years after LBJ passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolishing the National Origins Formula, which put a cap on how many Asians were allowed to immigrate to what we still call "The Beautiful Country." (About 1,000 per year.) This replaced the Magnuson Act of 1943, which replaced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which replaced the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from migrating here. During this stretch of time, every single Chinese community in the U.S. was attacked, burned to rubble, the survivors left to rebuild or to flee, while our key role in finishing the transcontinental railroad was erased from history. We were allowed to be cooks and launderers: "women's work." My parents were among the first wave of Chinese to come to America for what they thought would be a better education, a better life for their kids. They were fleeing war atrocities and communism. My mother got her Masters in Secondary Education in Arkansas; my dad got a Ph.D. in Geo-Chemical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. Between the two places, they liked Colorado better and decided to settle there. That's the story my dad told, anyway. I never asked my mom.
On the mainland, my dad came home after his first day in kindergarten and his mom asked him if he'd made any friends. He said "Anning." Anning is my mom. They knew each other their whole lives. My dad struggled with depression, my mom with other issues. They kept in touch. When they got married in Colorado, they went to the Justice of the Peace; because their English was so poor, they repeated their vows phonetically. My dad decided to learn silversmithing from friends he'd made on the Southern Ute reservation. I don't know why. When my mom was pregnant with me, my dad worked at a convenience store and was held up at gunpoint there. It changed him, I think, and so as soon as he could, he opened a mineral store, where he could make jewelry and sell gems and fossils to tourists in downtown Golden. I worked in a series of small, failing businesses like this through my entire childhood. Eleven hours a day during the summers for me, year-round for my parents. Christmas and birthdays were things we didn't even attempt to celebrate until my sister was born. I was seven. I am now five years younger than my dad was when he died. Many of the choices I've made in my life were a conscious detachment from the choices my parents made. Consequently, they represented a divorce from them as well. I have always been so angry and hurt. I didn't understand their story was a love story.
Written and directed by The Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about naturalized Chinese-Americans Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waywond (Ke Huy Quan). They're desperately preparing for an IRS audit of their failing laundromat, around which their entire lives revolve. They live above it, so when Evelyn needs help with a customer, she can just bang on the heat exchange with a broom handle. She's short with her clientele, gives them mean nicknames, doesn't quite see them as people anymore--they're participants in her Sisyphusian torment, where the rock she's rolling fruitlessly up a hill is laundry and taxes in an endless loop. Maybe it's more like Prometheus chained to the Caucasus, having his liver eaten every day only to regrow it every night. There's never enough money to compensate for the fear. I know that I lost my mind working in retail. I had to stop, because I realized I was ever on the verge of punching out a customer. I got into screaming matches with them. I had knives pulled on me. I stopped seeing other human beings as human beings. They were trying to steal from me. They were stealing the life I wanted. They were the reason I had to break the chain anchoring me to the store. My parents were the chain.
Evelyn and Waymond have a daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu, magnificent)--named heartbreakingly and aspirationally, as so many Chinese kids are. She longs for her mother to accept her for the chaotic mess that teens are. In the meantime, what she wants is for her mother to introduce Joy's girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), to Joy's grandfather (James Hong)--Evelyn's dad, meaning Joy calls him "Gong Gong"--as her girlfriend. "Look," Evelyn says, "you having a mom that accepts that you like girls is already pretty open." She's not wrong, though she also doesn't really accept Becky, treating her as an annoyance and later blaming Joy's gayness on a universe-eating chaos that's making everyone feel...wrong. Waymond has drawn up divorce papers in the hopes of finally getting Evelyn's attention, and Evelyn spends all of her time keeping a business afloat that she seems to hate while wondering what her life might have been like had she never left China for America and this shitty laundry in this country that hates her, and never had this daughter who is more this country's than hers anymore. Evelyn thinks often about her dad telling her she wasn't his daughter anymore when she chose Waymond before departing for America. She asks him how, as a parent, he could let her go so easily. I'm trying my best to remember--but I can't--how hard my parents fought to keep me once I walked away from them. I remember they didn't fight at all. I could be remembering it wrong. It could be that I didn't appreciate how hard they fought simply to survive, and by the time I told them I didn't want them, they were too exhausted to hold on. I was exhausted, too. We let one another go.
Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the closest and best analogue to Everything Everywhere All at Once in terms of tone, execution, theme, and emotional devastation. Here, the science-fiction conceit isn't a machine that erases specific memories evoked by external stimuli but rather a device that allows the user to access the entire life experience of a parallel self in one of an infinite number of parallel universes. That means that for as long as these two possible versions of the same person are quantumly entangled, the holder of the doodad can be a great chef, for instance, or a famous martial artist, or a cartoon, or a rock. The farther away the version of you is in terms of divergent paths taken in their lives, the more unlikely an act you have to perform in order for the machine to "bridge" the space between you. It's like the Infinite Improbability Drive powering the Heart of Gold spaceship in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the more random an action, the more powerful the interaction. Just one of the dozens of clever nerd references in the film, not that you have to get a single one of them to enjoy it. In the midst of her audit by dedicated public servant Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is warned that something transdimensional is making its way towards her--a source of great destabilizing power that is looking, for whatever reason, for every version of Evelyn in search of The One. I was afraid this was a messianic plot in the vein of The Matrix, but it's not that. The Evelyn of the audit is, in fact, "the One," though not because she's the best Evelyn--because she's the worst: the most despairing, the most useless, the one who made every possible "bad" decision in her life to lead her to this moment, having accomplished nothing and about to lose everything.
We moved my mom into hospice a few weeks ago, where she did not die. She's now in extended-care nursing, staying dosed-up on meds and falling now and then to send a pang through my heart. I have been a terrible son to her. I can't be near her. She fills me with dismay and shame, resentment and the helpless yearning of a child who has had their love for their mother rejected for as long as they can remember. She told me my father was dead by pointing to a door in the hospital where my dad's corpse waited, bagged on a gurney. I don't have anything left in me. She is the product of generational trauma. I barely knew my Gong Gong, but my 婆婆, my mother's mother, was a fucking nightmare who was herself badly abused. Evelyn's dad tells her he's disappointed in her and that she always makes the wrong decisions. At the end of the film, she tells him that he's wrong about her. Waymond tells her it doesn't matter what anyone else sees when they look at them, it only matters what they see. I don't think my mom got the life she wanted. She worked herself to death and kept our receipts in shoeboxes. When I partially cleaned out my mom's things, I found decades of tax returns neatly filed in banker's boxes, tucked under the stairs with my dad's death certificate and autopsy report. My dad, suffering from congenital heart failure and a list of other maladies, finally died after falling from a ladder while painting the side of the house. I don't know if a heart attack caused him to fall or the fall caused him to have a heart attack. I do remember seeing the bed pillow on the ground next to the house, where my mother rested it under his head while she waited for the ambulance to come take him away. I didn't know it was a love story.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a love story, too. It's most clearly that when we spend time with the Evelyn who is essentially Michelle Yeoh: a legendary martial artist who turned her back on love and became one of the most famous people on the planet. The Daniels shoot these sequences like a swoony Wong Kar Wai joint, capturing, in the process, the Asian Terrence Malick-ian dialogue of sad could-have-beens and armchair philosophers. Evelyn runs into Waymond at the premiere of her latest movie, and they steal a moment together in an alley while the river of humanity rushes past them. She tells him that had she left with him when they were children in starry-eyed love, they would've wound up destitute in a shitty little laundromat instead of independently wealthy--as they both appear to be--and meeting like this to maybe rekindle their affair. He says it would have been the thrill of his life to have spent it doing taxes and laundry with her. He says other things, too, that make me cry, about how he may seem stupid and naive to her, but that kindness is how he fights the encroaching dark. He's not naive, he's brave. Ke Huy Quan is a revelation in this role. I have long thoughts on Short Round, and there's a reason he's my avatar in most online interactions. Seeing him at 50, acting out Stephen Chow-like fight choreography and delivering a huge portion of the film's emotional payload, is more meaningful to me than I can ever express. Waymond is in love with his wife, and for him this is all that matters. By the end of the film, Evelyn gets it. Life is a series of terrible events punctuated by moments of transcendent, sublime grace. If you don't savour them, you miss every reason to be alive.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is also a love story between parents in a strange land and a daughter they're doing their best to rescue from alienation and depression. Joy, see, is the bad guy of the piece. The Frankenstein's monster. She is the all-powerful it threatening to destroy the world. Another universe's Joy has created an event horizon from traumatically experiencing the loneliness and "otherness" of a multitude of Joys--a barely-contained black hole she intends to feed herself to so she can stop hurting. She seeks out every possibility's Evelyn in an effort to get a single version of her mother to talk her out of annihilation, but each iteration proves incapable because of the solipsism that seems to unite the Evelyns across the timeline. (It's not Joy's burden to understand how that solipsism is born more from regret than from narcissism.) Now, finally, our Evelyn, this failed Evelyn, the statistical anomaly, who is so without obvious wins, is the one most likely to figure out how the only expectation she really needs to honour--indeed, really can honour--is to be in love with the people who love her. It's not a message to lie down and die, it's a prayer for appreciation of grace when it appears. Evelyn has a husband who loves her, a daughter reaching out to her, and a parent still alive. She has all she could ever want already. Everything else is a lie.
There's a beautiful early scene where Waymond sees an elderly Asian couple comforting and reassuring each other at the IRS office. It's fleeting, but The Daniels slow it down so that we register the importance of this image for Waymond. He wants Evelyn to grow old with him. He wants her to recognize him as someone with emotional needs, too, not just some clown who doesn't understand what's important and what isn't. At the end of the film, in the exact same spot at the IRS office, Evelyn looks at her husband shyly like she did when she was kid, and gives him a sweet kiss before they go into their meeting. Throughout, as various Waymonds touch various Evelyns kindly on the face, she reacts the same way Waymond reacts here: with wonder that someone has thought they were touchable when they felt like they were made of prickles and barbs. (Michelle Yeoh, I should mention, is so good in this film I wanted to stand up and point in the auditorium and claim ownership of a secret I felt like we kept as a diaspora since the 1980s.) When Joy says "nothing matters" at the beginning, it's the last cry before self-harm; when Evelyn says it to her after all that happens has happened, it's a mother and daughter reaching a point of mutual acceptance despite their foibles and the maelstrom of shit that swirls around them. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about the messiness of being human, as well as the glory of it: how you know it's all going to pot but you do it anyway, because life is for the living of it. It's about how suffering is quotidian, yet the moments of happiness, however brief and however rare, are enough to keep you warm, if only you could learn to blow those embers into a fire. I wonder if my mom will be able to have this kind of clarity before she goes--that she was in love and loved, and nothing else really mattered. I hope so. I want that for her. I want it for me, too.