In this the universe that we all know, a movie from the indie studio A24 called “Everything Everywhere All at Once” just won seven Academy Awards out of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Editing. The date is March 12th, 2023, at the 95th Academy Awards held in the Dolby theatre in Los Angeles, California.
A historic night as this is the first Sci-Fi genre movie to win Best Picture, and Michelle Yeoh the first Asian to garner the Best Actress honor in the ninety-five years of Oscar history. As well, the movie has set a record of the most acting wins together with Best Picture and Best Director wins from a single movie. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now A24’s highest-grossing feature of all time, surpassing $100 million at the box office. Surely there are still laundry and taxes to do, but at this point in time in this universe of ours, this is a defining moment in the film industry.
Oscar winning directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the Daniels, have created more than just a Sci-Fi movie. Calling it genre bending sounds outdated now as its multiverse jumping idea in their Best Original Screenplay fuses science fiction, action, comedy, and family drama all at once. Genre jumping might be a better term to describe the Daniels’ creative mode of filmmaking.
Never underestimate a middle age immigrant laundromat owner, wife and mother. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) has lots on her plate as she has to deal with the mountainous paperwork facing an IRA audit, a daughter dangerously depressed, and husband Waymond initiating a divorce proceeding. Unbeknownst to her is that in another universe, she is Evelyn the superhero whose mission is to save the multiverse from the villain Jobu Tupaki, who, lo and behold, is her daughter Joy’s destructive alter ego.
Ke Huy Quan’s comeback to the acting scene after decades of absence and winning the Oscar Best Supporting Actor is extraordinary. Credits to the casting director (Sarah Halley Finn) and the Daniels’ foresight, for Quan is the perfect guy to play Waymond. His movie role and his real-life persona look to be a perfect match. Quan has won over sixty awards for this role and now garnering the ultimate acclaim. After his magnificent action sequences in the IRS building, the fanny pack just might enjoy a comeback as well.
From a background in New York City’s comedy and improv scene, Stephanie Hsu goes all out in her dual portrayal as Joy, the despondent daughter who feels unseen and unloved by her mother Evelyn, and her alter ego in another universe: Jobu Tupaki, the powerful and destructive villain in the multiverse taking everyone with her into a nihilistic hole, sucked into the everything bagel which she has created and pitted all her despair, pain and guilt on it, an absurdist escape from her meaningless existence.
Creating a multiverse action movie to tell a family story with all its generational dysfunction and disappointment is outside the box thinking. The Daniels’ concept and execution are audacious and innovative, incorporating multiple forms of visuals, animations, and symbolism. Every battle between Superhero Evelyn and Jobu Tupaki is a metaphor for the mother/daughter conflict. As a daughter whose self-image has hit rock bottom, Joy is in despair having failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, choosing to jump right into the everything bagel. Evelyn, not just a superhero but more importantly, a mother, fights to snatch her daughter back.
In a silent scene without spoken dialogues––a much-needed respite from the chaos and sensory overload––Joy the rock chooses to fall off the cliff into oblivion. And what does the mother rock do? She moves to the edge of the precipice and rolls down after her daughter. This may sound ludicrous, but this soundless scene with the two rocks is one of the most poignant cinematic moments in the movie.
IRS paper pusher Deirdre, played by Oscar winning Best Supporting Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, is a follower of Jobu Tupaki in another universe. Her interactions with Evelyn offer some of the spontaneous fun in the movie. Action comedy at its best, not just in the fight scenes, but also in the universe where they have hotdog fingers, their feet and toes ever versatile. Debussy would have been impressed to hear Deirdre’s version of ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano.
The last person to make up the award-winning ensemble cast is 94 year-old James Hong as grandfather Gong Gong. Hong’s earliest roles in his seventy years of acting were with such classic figures like Cary Grant and Groucho Marx. Here his role is understated but nuanced. Just the scene in the elevator where Waymond urgently tells Evelyn her multiverse mission, using an umbrella to block out the security camera, the oblivious Gong Gong is sitting in his wheelchair casually picking his teeth, one of the many hilarious scenes in the movie.
Finished shooting in just thirty-eight days, the Covid lockdown gave Oscar winning editor Paul Rogers solitary time to complete a tall order, putting together scenes from multiple universes, of multiple timelines, and in extreme variation of locales, real and imaginary, to make sense of a story that needs multiple viewings for one to grasp its layered meaning.
Within the dense and oversaturated visuals and actions, the Daniels have packed in homages to iconic filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Krubrick, fun and significant insertions. Memorable is the scene emulating Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” when Waymond reveals to Evelyn his romantic self: “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” This is the way he fights, with kindness and love. And that’s the key to Evelyn’s ultimate change.
And what’s with the googly eyes? That’s Waymond’s mark of existence, harmless fun. He puts them on everything. Evelyn dislikes them at the beginning. In the final battle against Jobu Tupaki and her forces, she puts one on her own forehead. Like a third eye, she begins to see things from a new perspective.
Waymond, seemingly weak, holds a powerful weapon: kindness. “This is how I fight,” he says, moving Evelyn to emulate in the last action scene. When everyone has their googly eyes on, their deadly weapons are turned into innocuous objects; a hand grenade now becomes a perfume atomizer. Universal human kindness wins the final battle.
Didn’t get the metaphors and wacky symbolism? Good reason to re-watch. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a movie that demands multiple viewings. Outside the box filmmaking requires outside the box viewing. Those familiar with the Marvel, DC, or Manga universes could be more ready to appreciate it.
A thought about diversity. The Daniels are themselves an exemplar of mixed-race collaboration. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” succeeds not just because of diversity but universality: The mother daughter reconciliation, the husband wife rekindling of first love, and the theme of kindness and love overcoming malice would override any specific cultural or racial border. And here’s my hope for the future of filmmaking, go for universality. That which joins us as a humanity will naturally include diversity. Specific representation is important, but the utopic end would be one when race and color are not the defining focus but the common ground that we share as a human society.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
*This article first appeared the day after the Oscars in Asian American Press, on Monday, March 13th. I thank AAPress for allowing me to re-post my review in full here on Ripple Effects.