Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

February 03, 2023 09:20
Image: Wikipedia

A movie that moved me as much as it impressed, that dazzled with its spectacular theatre whilst allowing us to dote on its finer details. A story about a migrant family; a story about all of us. A tale of a mother who fought tooth and claw to get her daughter back. A tale of queer love that knows no boundaries. A tale of fate, chances, luck. Despair, roadblocks, and fatalism.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, was a lot. In a good way.

What had jumped out at me at the opening scene, was the constant, delicate handling of the migrant experience. To be a migrant in a White-majority country – in America, Britain, or France, or Australia – could be a jarring experience at times of rising anti-Asian hate and bigotry. Yet the trauma and barriers confronting the protagonist were much subtler, in a way, than the naked violence to which Chinese pedestrians are subject on the streets of San Francisco and New York. It’s instead a low-intensity yet perennial mixture of bureaucratic obstacles, soft bigotry of those peddling tropes and stereotypes, and a clash of cultural norms and values. Lo and behold the irritating, borderline-revolting IRS bureaucrats (epitomised by Deirdre, portrayed by none other than the stellar Jamie Lee Curtis). It sure ain’t easy to look and sound, to speak and behave ‘foreign’ in a ‘foreign land’ – especially when the odds are stacked against you in so many other ways: from tenants haranguing your mom-and-pop shop, to struggling to get through to children brought up under a different value system, to juggling inter-generational expectations and conflicts, and, of course, to deal with a husband that is equally endearing as tepid. Ke Huy Quan was absolutely terrific in jumping between Alpha Waymond and Waymond proper.

Yet what really got me thinking – was the introduction of the possible worlds frame that sublimates the movie, and renders it a truly genre-breaking and frontier-smashing work of art. Enter Michelle Yeoh. A true heroine to not just all Asians or Asian-Americans out there, but all women, all men who refuse to be defined by simplistic labels and categorical pigeonholes. In another life, Evelyn could have been a chef, a Shaolin monk, the protagonist of a Wong Kar Wai movie, or a sign-spinning virtuoso. Yet in this life, she is a middle-aged, frustrated housewife – trying her very best to adapt and learn the very skills she needs to protect her family. Every decision made, every choice grappled with, every intention we carry, could have rendered us turning out differently in life. And that’s precisely the beauty that Yeoh subtly conveys through her dexterous, capacious, and vivacious acting. She seamlessly flows in and out of her many selves with aplomb and elegance, that is reminiscent of the way she carried herself in Yuen Woo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And at the climactic scene, Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wang is Michelle is everything is one. Bigger questions, of course loom – to what extent could our lives have been different? Is there value in pondering the possible worlds in which our counterparts thrive or fail, better or worse than we do? Can we escape the boundaries and shackles established by our past decisions? Most fundamentally – can we learn to forget and cast aside the artificial barriers that prevent us from unlocking other parts of whom we truly are?

Whilst many commentators have noted the emphatic and powerful appeal of the movie’s exploration of the love between Waymond and Evelyn – I was particularly stuck by Stephanie Hsu’s Joy Wang, and the lesbian love story between her and her girlfriend. The multi-layered approach by which the movie painted the relationship – from Gong Gong’s (the inimitable James Hong) nonplussed confusion and Evelyn’s desperate efforts at concealing her daughter’s sexuality from her father, to Joy’s inner struggles with reconciling her love (however tendentious it seemed on surface) for her parents, with her personal sexuality; to the hidden mirroring in the “Hotdog Fingers” Deirdre and “Hotdog Fingers” Evelyn… reflects a level of subtlety and sincerity that is most rare in movies that seek to portray queer love. Through this, the relationship was not only enlivened – but made into something with which folks could actually relate, sans the glamourisation and romanticisation that is only all too tempting.

It's rare that we get a movie made about the Asian-American experience that does not collapse into tired tropes about empowerment, struggle, or from-rags-to-riches (I’m looking at Crazy Rich Asians here, except, of course, there were no real rags, apart from the 5 minutes in which Constance Wu and Henry Golding’s characters had a falling out over a misunderstanding triggered by a detective hired by Michelle Yeoh’s character… so on and so forth). It’s even rarer that it does such a grand job in capturing philosophical undertones and sociological overtures with such finesse, class, and… incisiveness. I would thoroughly recommend this movie – not only for you, but for the Oscars.

“In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” Indeed.

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Assistant Professor, HKU