By Alyson Wong
Nearly one year ago, on March 30, 2022, a few days after its release, I watched “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for the first time at a matinee film screening in a sparsely filled theater with a friend. Since then, the movie has continued to worm its way into the deepest crevices of my being and leave a lasting impression.
There’s something that happens when the depths of the cosmos manage to pierce through the fog of our human preoccupations. We see it in the sunset, a great work of art, the birth of a child, small pleasures, simple moments, the unexpected – all experiences that can render us speechless, humbled, grateful and aware of both our smallness and limitlessness.
This film, like all great art, does just that. It brought me back to myself and beyond myself. Though I made the point not to rewatch the film since my first viewing to preserve the initial impression and experience, I hesitantly opted to watch it once more before writing here to make sure I wasn’t getting carried away. To my relief, like eating your mom’s home cooking or listening to a masterful piece of music, the film entrained me to its essence regardless of how I showed up and held true. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” stands on its own and, if anything, gets better with time.
The feature directed by the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who make several creative cameos), popularly known as DANIELS, has the logic of laundry dumped onto a bed and strewn about after an unloading from the dryer, which is to say it makes absolutely no sense at all and also complete sense. Though the film can’t be encompassed in words, one could call it an absurdist-metaphysical-science-fiction-animation-fantasy-drama-action-comedy, and that still feels limiting.
The film is sectioned into three parts. It opens with an Asian immigrant family of three singing karaoke in a blissful daydream. After a few minutes, viewers are abruptly catapulted into the stressful reality of the Wang family, led by the matriarch Evelyn Quan Wang, who is played by Michelle Yeoh. We follow her as she juggles the mounting tasks of running her laundromat business, preparing her taxes for an IRS audit, caring for her father Gong Gong, played by James Hong (who, amongst his many acting achievements, is also 94 years old), and also navigating the rocky relationships with her wounded daughter Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu, and lovable husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan.
As the seams of Evelyn’s life begin to tear, it’s at the IRS building across from a pile of receipts and the hardened agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, (who is close to charging the family for fraud) that Evelyn gets a wakeup call. A version of her husband Waymond barges into her reality from a parallel universe, called the Alphaverse, to instruct her that she must learn to access the other Evelyn versions of herself existing in alternate universes to harness their skills and help fight in a multiversal war against a dark force named Jobu Tupaki.
Evelyn soon learns that her current life is one out of many universes. Out of all of them, she is currently living her worst life with so many goals unfinished and dreams unfollowed. Paradoxically, that’s what makes her powerful and the most likely to defeat Jobu Tupaki. Every micro decision creates branching new lives, and we see the lives she could have lived as a world-famous celebrity, a pizza sign twirler, a martial artist, and even one where she has hot dogs for fingers.
As Evelyn accesses different versions of herself across the multiverse, she confronts the hard truth that Jobu Tupaki is none other than her daughter Joy in another universe whose mind fractured after being pushed too hard to experience all of the universes. Out of boredom, Jobu Tupaki put everything from all universes onto a bagel which becomes the all-consuming force of Jobu’s reign that, like a vortex of pain, sucks everything into it. Evelyn slowly realizes that her life may be more than her taxes and restoring her relationship with her father, her marriage to Waymond, and saving her daughter Joy are all the same as saving herself.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (EEAAO) reverberates on so many levels – the psychological, physical, human, universal, soul, relational, familial, and cultural – generating a deceivingly simple but complex crystalline map of the infinite facets of existence.
The film explores the specifics of the immigrant experience, the experience of the unfulfilled, the bittersweet challenges of intergenerational trauma and repair, and the wounded love between daughter and mother and also partners. On a wider level, love, learning what it means to be human, the chaos of existing, the strangeness of life, and the impossibility of everything are also simultaneously explored. These themes are also woven into DANIELS’ previous feature, “Swiss Army Man,” where a marooned man named Hank (who fashions himself a cheese puff snack bag for a necklace) saves himself by interacting with a farting corpse named Manny. There is even a song lyric in the film that goes, “Everything everywhere matters to everything” which is a precursor to the themes fleshed out more fully in EEAAO.
On a technical level, the film delights and expands the imagination. DANIELS’ background in music video (see “Turn Down for What”) and short film work (see “Interesting Ball”) showcase a history of experimental risks and honed craft that culminates in their uniquely recognizable aesthetic of sharp editing cuts, dreamy montages, saturated colors, zany visual effects and bodily humor. Not to mention, the inclusion of stop motion and hand drawn animation expand the visual richness of this film as well.
If that’s not enough, the sound design for the film also wows, with a score composed by Son Lux, featuring musical talents like Mitski, André 3000 and David Byrne. The song, “This is a Life” that plays during the end credits, offers a perfect calm conclusion to a wild ride of an experience. And the use of Clair de Lune to accompany many of the fight scenes is a wonderful choice. It is worth mentioning that the inclusion of Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue throughout the film also adds to the film’s cultural authenticity and poignancy.
Ideologically, EEAAO gives much to ponder: What is life? How do we connect with our parents and children? What is success? How do we process regret? How do we accept and understand one another? How do we remain kind in a world of fear and confusion? What does it mean to be human? And how do you love someone that is literally going to kill you?
The range and depth of the film are an accomplishment and inspiration. The technical prowess matched with the arguably more challenging element of a well-tuned sensitivity of heart makes this film memorable. The courage to take ideas to unique and wild places and also vulnerably address emotionally challenging topics is a feat.
Be prepared to open your mind and have different parts of your brain and heart that may have gone dormant become activated. While in the theater, laughter sprung from the audience many times. However, do not be fooled by the maximalist tendencies of the feature, which are employed only in service of the story and also maybe for some fun. Though some may either love or hate this film, it does give both a voice to and a boon to the craziness of our times.
With the 95th Academy Awards taking place this weekend, I am curious to see what will transpire and regardless, feel EEAAO is a creative and cultural milestone. When this film came up in conversation at a party not long ago, I found myself saying that it made more sense to me than real waking life. And I still feel that’s true.
Alyson Wong is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, filmmaker, and photographer living in the Richmond District. She is a native San Franciscan and regular contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers. Her aim is to explore cinema without pretension through this monthly column, “In The Mood for Film.”
Categories: In the Mood for Film
👍⭐️😍 enjoyed your take on EEAAO….look forward to see the film in flight….