Michelle Yeoh, martial arts and the multiverse: in the craziest film of the year | Movies
There’s a line Michelle Yeoh delivers in Everything Everywhere All at Once that surely resonates with everyone these days: “Very busy today – no time to help you out.”
The internet broke us. Flooded with information (and misinformation), we are overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Notifications ring at all hours, scrolling never stops. We seek solace not in others, but in our devices – portals to our curated bubbles of content and community.
“There’s something about modern life that resonates with a multiverse story,” says Daniel Scheinart, one half of the directorial duo known as the Daniels. “Everyone is in their own little universe. We all log on to social media and discover these sometimes really beautiful and fascinating, sometimes nightmarish and conspiratorial subcultures. It is a very confusing experience.
This confusion is the basis of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once by Daniels, which already inspires a frenzy of breathless to rent out: It is announced as the year first big movie and almost instantly became Letterboxd highest rated movie since its limited release (not to mention box office numbers and sold-out theatrical engagements rarely seen since pre-Covid).
Evelyn (Yeoh, in a career-determining role) is at rock bottom, with her relationship with her husband (Ke Huy Quan, in a resplendent back to cinema) and her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) crumble almost beyond repair, when a dreaded encounter with a ruthless taxman (Jamie Lee Curtis) reveals the existence of a multiverse in peril that only Evelyn could be. able to save. Such a summary does little service to a manic and crazy film full of pop culture references, cringe-worthy body humor and frantic kung fu choreography that also manages to be genuinely moving, inspiring a breathtaking optimism that reaffirms the primacy of kindness and human connection in the face of a black hole of nihilism. All to say, as many have done, the title lives up to it.
After their 2016 Swiss Army Man, which focused on flatulence and erection, Scheinert and Daniel Kwan decided to do their version of The Matrix. In both of their hallmarks, human bodies manage to transcend their realistic mortal forms, becoming receptacles for something far greater than what they can do in real life. It stems from the directors’ shared love of dance and physical comedy, which has become a treasured vocabulary between the pair, who began as music video directors tell stories without dialogue.
Via Zoom, Kwan shows a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, which explores the premise of true free will: “When we first started directing, I really hated the job. I felt like I was controlling these humans, forcing them to recreate something in my head. Like Swiss Army Man, in which a corpse turns out to be a Swiss army knife of tools for the protagonist, Daniels’ video for Foster the People’s Houdini embodies a similar anxiety, with record label buddies handling band members’ corpses in front of a cheering crowd. But Kwan notes that they are starting to move away from that puppet guilt towards something more optimistic. “Rather than ships without autonomy to control, what a great gift to have all these possibilities, to be a ship to contain anything.”
Including the hot dog fingers, with which Evelyn is horrified to find herself grappling with a single universe. “We wanted to play an empathy game with our audience and come up with a universe that Evelyn really wouldn’t want to be in – a visually gross universe, where she’s in love with the person she loves least – and then see if we can make the audience and our main character see the beauty of it,” Scheinert explains, before laughing that this is how they spoke to Curtis and Yeoh in those scenes when the actors expressed skepticism.
Much of the film is told through the eyes of first-generation immigrants trying to make sense of this country, navigating bureaucracy, doing taxes, trying to socialize and do business with other Americans. Initially, Kwan did not intend to feature a Chinese-American immigrant family, but that came naturally given the genre: some of their favorite films included Jackie Chan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, of course, The Matrix, which placed Hong Kong’s action choreography front and center. Seeing martial arts through the line, they realized they could make Asians the protagonists. “How exciting would that be?” Kwan remembers thinking. From there they began to write down what he knew. His father’s family emigrated from Hong Kong and opened laundromats in New York; he remembers his grandparents’ apartment just above their laundromat.
Everything Everywhere is strongly inspired by the heyday of Hong Kong cinema that the two Daniels are so fond of. After the first draft, Scheinert saw how Stephen Chow absurd mark of slapstick had influenced their writing. “He was one of the first Asian filmmakers that I fell in love with who really combined tones in a shocking way,” he says, recalling the impact of Shaolin Soccer in 2001. brutal right after being hysterically funny like Looney Tunes.”
Without forgetting Jackie Chan and his playful combat sequences which make him everyday objects as weapons. “Who didn’t love Jackie Chan in the 90s?” Kwan notes, with Scheinert pointing out, “Everybody fell in love with him, and then Hollywood didn’t learn his lesson in how to make the action clear and precise and fun and funny. It’s so wild that his work made such a splash here and was so rewarding and yet that action style just disappeared.
When Daniels began writing Everywhere, a story centered around an Asian American family was far from a recipe for Hollywood success. Yeoh first met them two weeks before the release of Crazy Rich Asians; no one was sure how he would be received. Kwan recalled Yeoh then saying, “You take a lot of risks with this movie. It’s very brave to center this great action film around a Chinese family.
Five years ago, an Asian American in the industry who read his script provided a colorful metaphor inspired by the evolution of Pokémon that stuck with Kwan. “They said the Bulbasaur Asian American films are like Joy Luck Club or The Wedding Banquet – important stories that no one was telling at the time about a very specific cultural narrative. Thanks to those earlier movies, we can now watch things like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, with Asian Americans starring in our own genre movies – they’re the Ivysaurs of Asian American cinema. And our movie is a Venusaur.
Everything Everywhere could only exist because of these predecessors, he says: “This film shows that Asian American cinema can be anything it wants.” And this coincides with the recent releases of After Yang by Kogonada and Turning Red by Domee Shi. All three “basically echo the same sentiment,” Kwan says, “that is, we’re going to tell the story we want to tell.” Ultimately, Kwan has high hopes for the growing inclusiveness of American cinema: “I’m very excited for the next five to ten years. Hopefully every marginalized community has that opportunity to step forward and say, “Look, I know the narrative is usually this, but there’s so much more for us.”
So far, Everything Everywhere has received such a resounding response that one suspects there’s something more at stake than what’s onscreen. “The idea for the film came from the fact that everything was polarized and pushed in all directions,” Kwan explains. “Everyone feels that stretch. And that movie was an attempt to hold the worlds together and imagine a place where everything belongs and exists for a reason – where things aren’t this chaotic, terrifying mess, but rather a beautiful mass filled with possibilities. I think people need to hear that now.