“Everything Everywhere All at Once” begins with a window into the daily struggles of an everyday woman. Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is being squeezed from all sides: The IRS is auditing her business, she and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), might be getting a divorce, she struggles to understand her adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and she’s caring for her aging and disapproving father (James Hong).
One version of this movie could have been a domestic drama, following our frazzled and beleaguered protagonist through the grind of her precarious life. But in the hands of “Swiss Army Man” directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the bold and inventive duo known as Daniels, something wild is about to happen. The family heads to a meeting with a hilariously grouchy IRS auditor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). Waymond — or an alternate version of him, as we soon learn — hands Evelyn some instructions hastily written on the back of one of their tax forms. She follows the instructions, which unlock an ability for her to enter a series of alternate universes. What if she hadn’t married Waymond and left China with him? What other lives could she have lived? She jumps between different versions of herself in various and increasingly wacky universes, taking her — and us — on a wild, almost psychedelic ride.
“I was so intrigued and I was so overwhelmed by the fact that these two young men had written a story for an older woman — older, immigrant Asian mother — and basically at the end of the day, in fact, gave her superpowers,” Yeoh said, describing the first time she read Daniels’ script. “She’s like a superhero because she says all the universes keep the family together. That they had the audacity, the boldness, the courage to write that. If you look around us, when was the last time you saw an older woman being the superhero?”
Lucky for us, not only does this movie give the legendary Yeoh a chance to be a superhero, but also builds an entire Michelle Yeoh cinematic universe. We get homages to everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “In the Mood for Love.” We get a variety of genres and moods: sci-fi, action, adventure, film noir — and yes, a tender domestic drama. One of the beauties of the film is that wrapped inside the dizzying chaos, there’s a tale about a Chinese immigrant family just trying to get by, a mother and daughter trying to unlearn their intergenerational trauma, and how to find joy in times when nothing seems to matter.
“It’s about a story of a very ordinary family, right? And then she became extraordinary,” Yeoh said. “At the end of the day, the humanity of what it was was most important. You do not give up. You don’t give up on your family. You don’t give up on your love, and in whatever universe and wherever you go, you go around searching for each other.”
At the heart of the film’s tenderness is the core family unit, played by a unique assemblage of actors, each bringing their varied careers to their roles. Hsu is making her feature film debut after working steadily in theater and TV. Quan, who rose to fame as a 1980s child star in “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” has returned to acting at the age of 50. Rounding out the family is Hong, a veteran journeyman actor with over 400 film and TV credits. At 93, he continues to work prolifically. He gamely admitted that when he read the script, “a lot of it didn’t make sense, you know, jumping from one universe to the other, or whatever. It’s very confusing. And I didn’t try to understand it all because, you know, it would take a lot of time.”
Each actor embraced the challenge of playing multiple versions of their characters. For instance, Quan had to switch between regular Waymond; Alpha Waymond, an action hero who takes out enemies by slinging his fanny pack; and suave CEO Waymond. Before filming, he poured himself into preparation, hiring an acting coach, a dialogue coach, a voice coach and a body movement coach.
“From the very beginning, it was very important to me that the audience was able to distinguish who’s who just simply by how they stand, how they walk, how they move, and how they speak,” Quan said. “The body movement coach would read the script and would pick specific animals for me to do. For Waymond, it was a squirrel. For Alpha Waymond, it was the eagle, and CEO Waymond was a fox. I would spend countless hours on YouTube just watching these animals, how they move, how they fly, how they eat, all of that.”
The chaos of the movie can sometimes feel overwhelming. But again and again, it returns to its core Asian immigrant family story. I found deep comfort in how the movie feels, for lack of a better description, extremely Asian. I felt so at home listening to the characters switch between Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Chinglish, sometimes using multiple languages and dialects even in one sentence — the way many immigrant families speak to each other. Similarly, I felt the fraught relationship between Evelyn and Joy deep in my bones, the struggle of appreciating the sacrifices our immigrant parents made while also charting our own paths and hoping our parents understand.
“It’s been amazing to talk to Asian women specifically about the mother-daughter relationship, because everyone’s like, ‘I get it,’” Hsu said. “I can feel your heart, even through this Zoom. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, yeah, you get it,’ and I don’t even have to explain because you get it, and you’ve been there.”
“Oh, my gosh,” Hsu said of one cathartic scene between Evelyn and Joy toward the end of the movie. “I am just straight-up, like, ugly crying. I just really wanted to let it all hang out. I just wanted to be as honest as humanly possible about this very deep kind of intergenerational trauma, and the deep desire to express love and not knowing how to do it.”
Yeoh has come to appreciate the film’s multigenerational appeal. For younger generations, the movie is “very much their world: the fast and furious, the chaos and all that, right?” she said. “They get it — and then they go, ‘I’m going to call my mom.’”
For Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” represents several full-circle moments. One of them is the fact that Yeoh is a big reason why he has returned to acting. The success of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, the first Hollywood studio movie since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” to feature a majority-Asian cast — including Yeoh as matriarch Eleanor Young — convinced him things maybe were finally improving. After achieving some recognition as a kid in the 1980s, Quan quit acting when he reached adulthood, demoralized by the scarcity of roles for Asian actors.
“I was in my early 20s, and all I was doing was waiting for the phone to ring. It rarely did — and when it did, it was to audition for a role where there were only two lines. It was at a time where it was very disheartening to be an Asian actor,” he said. “So, for me, here, speaking with you today, this certainly wasn’t planned. It wasn’t the game plan, like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get back into acting when I turn 50.’”
The beauty of this movie is that Quan gets to be the action star and romantic lead that he couldn’t be back in the 1990s. In one of the alternate universes, Evelyn is a movie star (a clever meta moment, featuring real red carpet footage of Yeoh herself). At a premiere, movie star Evelyn spots CEO Waymond, the one who got away. The gorgeous scenes are framed just like something out of a Wong Kar-wai movie. From a distance, CEO Waymond looks an awful lot like Wong’s frequent collaborator, Hong Kong star Tony Leung.
This too is a full-circle moment for Quan. After quitting acting, he graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school and then worked behind the camera in various roles, like as a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer on “X-Men” and “The One.” For years, he also worked with Wong, including as his assistant director on “2046.”
Now, instead of watching Leung from behind the camera on one of Wong’s masterpieces, Quan got to “walk on set and to be in that suit with my hair gelled back,” he said. “To be able to be a part of this homage to the great master himself was really sweet.”
In the four years since “Crazy Rich Asians,” Asian representation on screen, while still limited in many ways, is slowly but surely becoming more commonplace and varied. Each major movie or role for an Asian actor lays the foundation for the next one. Hsu just filmed a comedy directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” co-screenwriter Adele Lim, set to be released later this year. It’s the culmination of a journey that began with her breakout role in the musical “Be More Chill” and progressed to TV roles in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.”
“I came from a world of making experimental downtown theater,” Hsu said. “I feel like I have somehow managed to sneak in through the back door and make a movie with a bunch of weirdos that I’m confident so many people are going to love, and it’s going to be a cult classic that they study in film school.”
Quan is currently filming the Disney+ adaptation of the graphic novel “American Born Chinese,” also starring Yeoh. He’s hopeful this moment, unlike the 1990s, isn’t a blip, but a real transformation.
“Change is definitely happening. It might not move as fast as we want, but with all sustainable improvement, it happens gradually. My return to acting is a direct result of some of the progress that’s been made by the Asian talents working in Hollywood today. I remember, over the years, I’ve met a lot of them and they always say, ‘Ke, thank you, man. You’re the OG. Thank you for paving the way for us to be here.’ What’s really interesting is that they also paved the way for my return.”
“My return, it proves how important it is for not just Asians, but for everybody to be represented in entertainment, because until it happens, you just can’t imagine that it can also be you up there on the screen,” he continued. “I can’t imagine how many others like myself out there, young and old, who share in the same dream that lay dormant for many years. So if you ask me what I hope our movie can do, I really hope ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ does for these dreamers what ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ did for me. That would make me really happy.”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now playing in select theaters and will premiere in wide release on April 8.