“Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away, sucked into a bagel.” With this absurd revelation, the transmigratory being Jobu Tapaki, née Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu), invites her mother from this universe, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), to join her quest for self-annihilation, taking the infinite worlds that make up the multiverse of Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert [“the Daniels”], 2022) along with them.
Like its nihilist metaphor of a “bagel with everything,” the film builds the worlds of its multiverse by deploying every imaginable transpacific film genre: dystopian science fiction, wuxia, kung fu, superhero, anime, romantic comedy, immigrant family drama, art house, nostalgic romance, and so forth. To save the multiverse, and ultimately her family, from crumbling, Evelyn must become the protagonist of each of these genre worlds—a believable feat for Yeoh, Asian cinema’s most recognizable star. 1 In combining these genre worlds into a coherent Buddhist parable of a family suffering failure in every world before learning compassion for each other in this one, Everything Everywhere All at Once does what no Asian American commercial feature film has done before: succeed at box offices, award ceremonies, and representing Asian America.
With its multiple, record-setting Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once showcases Asian and Asian American filmmakers and actors breaking through Hollywood’s “bamboo ceiling,” perhaps signaling a sea change for the viability of producers, filmmakers, and performers of East Asian descent in a historically racist and sexist industry. 2 Yet Asian American commercial film remains a controversial, if not paradoxical, concept. Everything Everywhere All at Once illuminates and reconciles that seeming contradiction by using the conventions of popular transpacific genre films to represent Asian American experiences.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Asian American film and media scholars pioneered the idea of an Asian American cinema by canonizing the works of independent Asian American filmmakers of the 1970s who sought to overturn racist representations, advance a politics of racial justice, and advocate for more roles in the industry for people of Asian descent. 3 As in cultural studies, Asian American film and media studies takes the notion of pan-Asian identity as a politically necessary fiction that can support intersectional movements for racial, sexual, and gender equality in and through film and media, while also addressing structural inequalities of class divides, colorism, and disparate migration and settlement histories. However fabricated, a pan-ethnic, pan-linguistic, and multigenerational coalition of an Asian American body politic makes it possible for marginalized subjects to be counted as a demographic, pool resources for communal institutions, recognize themselves in popular culture, and ultimately, voice political protest.
However, many contemporary Asian American filmmakers are ambivalent about making “Asian American films,” at least according to the prevalent notion of Asian American film as cultural representation and critique. 4 Scholar and film-festival programmer Brian Hu explains that Asian American feature filmmakers commonly believe they have “made it” only if they make films with “assimilated characters who ‘just happen to be Asian’ . . . [or] dispense with Asian characters altogether in an attempt to prove that an Asian American filmmaker can make films about people of any race.” 5 Given their great expense and crossover potential, narrative features now represent “the currency by which Asian American filmmakers are legitimized as auteurs, by which Asian American filmmaking institutions are deemed to be serving the filmmaker community, and by which Asian American cinema is measured to have achieved its potential as a cultural, social, and economic commodity.” 6
Doubting the representational ability of this new currency, Sylvia Chong decries a “discourse of visibility” for Asian Americans in popular media that has become conflated with political power and racial justice, as though inclusion in a “deeply racist and troubled system” such as global Hollywood is the end as opposed to the means for achieving tangible political outcomes. 7 Echoing that critique, Melissa Phruksachart notes that while Asian American audiences are more visible and gaining greater control in shaping that visibility with Hollywood films featuring casts of Asian descent such as Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018), their influence on box-office receipts manifests a pyrrhic neoliberal victory that neglects politics in exchange for “feeling seen” through market presence and participation. 8
The desire of Asian American filmmakers, institutions, and audiences to make, consume, and be represented in Hollywood films, regardless of their cultural politics, is at odds with the anticapitalist and antiracist traditions of Asian American cinema. Differences within Asian America foster this tension. Even Asian American cinema as a whole, let alone a single feature film, cannot possibly represent the interests of so many ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous communities that migrated from the largest and most populous continent by disparate routes in different epochs. Moreover, it often represents wealthy diasporic elites, such as the makers, characters, and cast of Crazy Rich Asians. 9
Given the mass appeal and extensive capital necessary for successful commercial feature filmmaking, Asian American cinema may be approaching the limits of representation as a political goal. Nevertheless, as Lori Kido Lopez notes in her reception study of Asian American audiences, popular cultural phenomena like Crazy Rich Asians construct an important social world. The affective responses of Asian American audiences “became a vehicle for communicating the values, struggles, and intellectual engagements that had so long been silenced,” thus exposing “many contradictory and heterogeneous possibilities for Asian American audiencehood.” 10
Everything Everywhere All at Once similarly makes a social world of “contradictory and heterogeneous possibilities” for Asian diasporic and Asian American audiences. Cultural theorist Anne Anlin Cheng describes the film as being “deeply Asian American.” 11 Yet Asian diasporic audiences and critics claim that it represents Asians, too, for a multiplicity of reasons: by making the martial-arts superhero protagonist a middle-aged Asian woman that “we all need,” narrating and “helping to heal generational trauma,” serving as the perfect metaphor for the “beautiful, flawed fiction” of Asian America, and telling the “non-diaspora diaspora story we’ve all been waiting for.” 12 It’s also been dubbed the second-best Asian American film of all time—with the canon’s founding text, Chan Is Missing (Wayne Wang, 1982), still being the greatest. 13 It’s even been claimed to represent the “Asian psyche.” 14 Everything Everywhere All at Once generates this remarkable capacity for plural representations through a key strategy: by reproducing the conventions of popular transpacific genre films.
“The Daniels” (Kwan and Scheinert) began their careers making popular music videos before releasing the bizarre indie hit Swiss Army Man (2016), featuring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. As their only (so far) “Asian American film,” Everything Everywhere All at Once uses a multiverse structure to tell the story of its central characters, the Wang family. In the primary universe introduced to audiences at the beginning of the film, the Wangs run a struggling laundromat in the greater L.A. area and face an IRS audit. The mother, Evelyn (Yeoh), regrets her life with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), a cheerful but inept partner who adds googly-eye stickers to workplace items for laughs. When they were teenagers, Waymond convinced Evelyn to leave Hong Kong for a life in the United States despite the objections of her father, Gong Gong (James Hong), and his relentless disapproval. Their depressed young adult daughter, Joy, struggles in vain for Evelyn’s attention, hoping that her mother will recognize and address Joy’s same-sex partner, Becky (Tallie Medel), as her “girlfriend.” Waymond also seeks Evelyn’s attention, hoping that by his initiating divorce proceedings they may start a new conversation about their marriage and rekindle their romance.
The primary universe is only one of the infinite series of parallel universes that follow, each manifesting different possible realities for the Wang family. This “multiverse” becomes the wider setting wherein the separate but correlated universes are embedded. The technology posited for contacting and interacting with alternate universes—“verse-jumping,” in the film’s terminology—allows users to download skills such as martial arts, as well as memories and emotions from their alternative selves. Parodying the concepts and plot formula of sci-fi multiverse film The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lili Wachowski [“the Wachowskis”], 1999), another film that reproduced the genre conventions of popular Asian cinemas to great acclaim, Everything Everywhere All at Once frames Evelyn as the nascent superhero inducted by a Virgilian guide who reveals the illusions of reality.
Like The Matrix’s Neo, Evelyn adapts new technology to develop instantaneous superpowers and becomes “the one” to restore the balance disrupted by technology run amok. However, unlike the false reality of the titular matrix, Everything Everywhere All at Once configures its multiverse as parallel universes that diverged based on the outcomes of pivotal events in Evelyn’s life—most centrally, the choice to emigrate. Akin to Borges’s “garden of forking paths,” all possible branches exist, but the act of jumping between paths disrupts the coherence of each affected world.
Accelerating that disruption is Jobu Tapaki, an omniversal being who is capable of inhabiting any and all possible versions of Joy, verse-jumping as easily as flipping channels with the remote. Like The Matrix antagonist Agent Smith, the genre crosser Jobu sows chaos for fun, exposing and violating the conventions of each world, threatening the internal boundaries of the multiverse, and destroying all in her path. Jobu creates the “everything bagel,” an apocalyptic black hole–like MacGuffin that causes everyone to feel like “something is off: your clothes never wear as well the next day, your hair never falls in quite the same way, even your coffee tastes wrong.” Evelyn is recruited to neutralize Jobu and “take us back to how it’s supposed to be,” but first she must decode the conventional limitations of her world.
While Evelyn’s generic sci-fi superhero plot line justifies the multiverse setting, the fraying relations between Evelyn and her clownish but well-intentioned husband, disapproving father, distraught daughter, and no-nonsense tax auditor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), as well as her own failed ambitions, make up the infrastructural connections of the multiverse. The primary universe still provides the classical narrative arc of “saving the loved one . . . and (re)building a relationship” that drives the “interdependence of parallel lines of action.” 15 The audience moves with Evelyn between each universe and its particular narrative, but the decay of family ties remains the primary drama. For Evelyn to “save the multiverse,” she must rehabilitate those relations.
The film introduces the multiverse with a circular mirror standing atop a cluttered vanity that reflects Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy raucously singing karaoke in a room lit by the TV’s glow. Suddenly, the lights come on and the happy image disappears, replaced by the banal reflection of the living-room ceiling. A door slams, and its vibration jostles the mirror into a horizontal perspective showing an even more cluttered dining area, haphazardly converted into a home office replete with a CCTV monitor, sacks of clean laundry, a glowing fish tank, a table fan, and another mirror. Evelyn frantically enters that mise-en-scène of disorganized minutiae — each prop a portal into a different story of immigrant life.
Other worlds are possible, experiences could be and have been different, things were not always as such, but in the current climate, Evelyn is too busy to focus her attention on anything. The perspective shifts as Waymond’s smiling face enters the other mirror. He snatches a receipt out of Evelyn’s hands, playfully distracting her. She reactively and instinctually rebukes him in a Cantonese-accented Mandarin, setting the linguistic terms of their engagement. He responds with an English, “Uh…,” and shifts to Mandarin to request time for a serious conversation.
A singing rice cooker interrupts them and the perspective shifts again. Evelyn jumps to prepare Gong Gong’s breakfast, now mixing her complaints with English, “哎呀 [‘Ugh’], I have to finish all this before 爸起來 [‘Dad wakes up’],” nagging Waymond to complete his maintenance tasks for the laundromat and that evening’s Lunar New Year celebration. He continues in Mandarin, slowly shifting into English as he grows excited about the evening’s festivities, “他們的 [‘Their’] men’s choir 有 [‘has a’] fun surprise 給爸 [‘for dad’].”
“麵 [‘Noodles’]!,” Evelyn suddenly interrupts, moving back to Mandarin, confusing Waymond, and defusing his enthusiasm. “你幫我煮麵 [‘Help me cook noodles’].”
Losing his train of thought, Waymond moves to the stove and transitions back to Mandarin, again asking if they can arrange a time for a serious conversation, before ending, in English, “like this afternoon?”
“Five minutes!” Evelyn yells in English.
“What?,” he responds in confusion.
“看麵啊，五分鐘 [‘Check the noodles in 5 minutes’],” she replies, not listening to his request, expecting him to follow as she switches between topics and languages. Pulled in multiple directions, Evelyn performs the polylingual juggling act that plagues the life of immigrant-family small-business owners, as Waymond struggles to keep up.
The film emphasizes Evelyn’s hurried and fractured attention span through cuts, camera movement, and sound. For a brief moment, Waymond manages to quiet Evelyn and command her attention, pulling her to face him and reassuring her in Mandarin that what matters is their own perspective on their lives together. The shot moves toward the couple, then cuts to a wider view and focuses on their family photos, before cutting to an interior view of their family home and everything in it. Suddenly, Gong Gong yells for Evelyn from upstairs in Cantonese, disrupting the brief moment of calm, and a buzzer sounds, indicating Joy’s arrival and the beginning of the next round of chaos.
Multilingual minority subjects use code switching as a resource for adapting to, resisting, or even asserting power. Not only does the practice indicate multiple belongings and allegiances, but each switch illustrates a shift in power dynamics based on how that code is normalized in that given space, determining and changing the plane of engagement. English dominates when discussing the IRS and customers, Mandarin mediates matrimony, and Cantonese pleases the patriarch. Whether trying to better navigate the world of tax law and small-business maintenance or to change the terms of relating to a despotic father, a supplicant husband, and an unexpected daughter, Evelyn must constantly shift between linguistic and cultural spaces. Not just an adaptation to power, code-switching indicates shifts in how power is legitimated.
The film uses these shifting perspectives to foreshadow other possible universes, including one in which the family is happy together. The transitions between worlds are coded as different performances of genre archetypes, signified by accent and body movement that indicate to which world the characters belong. This sequence begins with Waymond code-switching: on a CCTV monitor, changing from buffoonish jokester to a secret agent, he avoids the cameras by doing parkour through the laundromat before returning to character.
Viewers later discover that this code-switched character is the dashing, skilled martial artist, and native English–speaking “Alpha Waymond,” a Morpheus figure who reemerges in an elevator at the IRS building, a parody re-creation of The Matrix’s bureaucratic office battleground between government agents and rebels. Like the diasporic elite, Alpha Waymond is a resource-rich and multilingual migrant from the Alphaverse—a dystopian world, à la Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), where verse-jumping led to apocalyptic consequences. He initiates Evelyn in the verse-jumping technology, Bluetooth-like headsets that chime when ready to upload an alternative consciousness, offering her the chance to escape not only the multiversal threat of annihilation, but more crucially, the mundane world of immigrant family struggle. Verse-jumping becomes the means of self-empowerment.
A Multiverse of Genres
To prepare Evelyn for verse-jumping, Alpha Waymond maps her memories for the pivotal life events that created branching parallel universes, a process depicted as a first-person perspective flashback. Evelyn sees the elevator doors opening into the flashback as though emerging from the womb: her first memory is of being presented by the doctor to her father, a much younger Gong Gong, with the words in Cantonese “唔意思女 [‘I’m sorry, it’s a girl’].” The memory then fast-forwards to Evelyn as a child in Hong Kong being yelled at by Gong Gong, meeting her first love, Waymond, at primary school, and later eloping to the United States and being disowned. Digitally filtered for a vintage Hong Kong golden-age cinema look with shots of alleyways that emphasize urban density, the montage references Hong Kong “migration melodramas,” such as An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung, 1987) and Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Ho-sun Chan, 1996), that made Hong Kong stars such as Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung household names among sinophone audiences around the Pacific. 16
Not only does Everything Everywhere All at Once reference the style and narrative motifs of popular transpacific genres; it slyly replicates the 4:3 aspect ratio of the videocassette format through which the diaspora experienced these genre films. The cycle of suffering that begins with Gong Gong’s severe parenting and Evelyn’s rebellion and reemerges in Evelyn’s tumultuous relationship with Joy represents a karmic inquisition into immigrant life choices. After her life literally flashes before her eyes like an eighties Hong Kong film rented from a suburban-enclave strip-mall video store, Evelyn awakens in a daze, lost in the imaginative possibilities of the pivotal moments in her life that have just played out. Only then does Alpha Waymond give Evelyn instructions for escaping the audit meeting and Deidre’s droning lecture about IRS forms.
To activate the “jumping pad,” users must do something that goes against the standard norms of their current setting, ranging from innocuous acts like eating ChapStick to surreal feats such as using a workplace trophy as a sex toy. The more outlandish and unexpected the action, the greater the probability of moving to a branch farther from the current universe. These gags create the absurdist humor of the film, as the verse jumpers do continually more-bizarre actions to activate their powers. However, each time Evelyn verse-jumps, she remembers the life of that alternate Evelyn, and with time, these downloads become more than just a memory: they constitute different worlds that Evelyn can inhabit. In absorbing their archetypal powers, she assimilates their genres too.
The film portrays the variations in its characters’ possible life experiences as alternate worlds made legible as genre stories with their own narrative dramas based on expectations associated with those genres that offer Evelyn the possibility of inhabiting the main character in different movies. For example, she absorbs the martial-arts skills from a universe based on a life trajectory in which she decided to stay in Hong Kong instead of eloping and ended up becoming a skilled martial artist and sinophone action-film star—a direct allusion to Yeoh’s actual career. The other worlds take on different “tones,” depending on the particular narrative thread of each alternate life, replete with separate genre references.
For example, Evelyn’s youth and martial-arts training are depicted as a fantasy wuxia film set in a bamboo forest, while the montage of Evelyn as a celebrity movie star uses actual media footage of Yeoh on the red carpet promoting Crazy Rich Asians. Scenes set at the premiere of her latest movie—where she coincidentally reconnects with a tuxedo-wearing tycoon Waymond whom she previously jilted—use overly saturated dark hues of green, red, and gold, fashionable costumes, and digitally re-created step-printing and overcranking effects that mimic Wong Kar-wai’s nostalgic romance films such as Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love (2000).
Each of these genre worlds advances its own narrative impetus, such as absorbing the master’s lessons or revisiting romantic feelings of the past. A variation, reminiscent of Chen Kaige’s lush costume dramas about Peking Opera performers Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Forever Enthralled (2008), depicts Evelyn as blind due to a childhood accident, which then facilitates an opera career with Gong Gong as her entrepreneurial stage manager. These variations in Evelyn’s possible lives are presented as genre worlds, legible and distinguishable through such semantic elements as setting, costume, and stylistic motifs.
Genre references allow multiverse films to build their various worlds, filtering them through a recognizable “tone” or “atmosphere” that conditions the audience’s “horizon of expectations” for each world’s narrative. 17 Genre provides a narrative formula for emotional satisfaction, whether defeating the bad guys, making daddy proud, or revisiting long-lost love. As Evelyn becomes a more capable verse-jumper, she further assimilates these genre worlds, becoming fluent in their syntax, performing their standard plot lines, and incorporating their desires and expectations. She imagines and learns different possible variations of her own life by understanding them as successive genres to assimilate and perform.
The film’s genre-referencing flashbacks draw attention to how easily a family’s fate could have been otherwise, right here in the known universe of earth, depending upon such pivotal events as moving abroad, getting divorced, having children, winning parental acceptance of your partner, or surviving an IRS audit. The multiverse becomes the fantastical device for imagining these variations in transpacific experience, ones in which the Wang family might be successful or even happy, rendering their viability generically.
Asian America as Genre
Fluent in genre storytelling, Everything Everywhere All at Once can be everything to so many because it reproduces the genre conventions that Asian American audiences find most legible. The production, distribution, and consumption of genre films are based on a tacit contract between filmmakers and audiences regarding what they believe a genre should be, and those expectations then condition audience responses to each new film. Audiences “experience” genres as negotiations over that contract, actively evaluating, as they watch, whether a given scenario resonates with “lived experience” or expresses “communal values,” and making their judgments known at the box office and through critical reception. As engagements with “communally shared conventions,” genre films reflect “continual negotiations between the world and self.” 18
As a commercial feature film, Everything Everywhere All at Once draws mainstream audiences because of how it elicits and negotiates these genre expectations, addressing Asian America as an “intimate public”—a paradox, given that these strangers imagine themselves connected by shared personal feelings as articulated by mass media. Participants “feel as though [the genre] expresses what is common among them, a subjective likeness that seems to emanate from their history and their ongoing attachment and actions.” 19 Genres shape a subject’s sense of belonging to a social world, as though living out a particular kind of story that others can also recognize and understand in accordance with each genre’s formulaic pattern of what makes for an emotionally satisfying life.
To be a “generic Asian American” is to see oneself as a knowable subject in a bigger story, who if not for the slightest perturbations in fate might have lived the same lives as the Asian American characters in popular media. Protagonist Evelyn—disowned by her parents, frustrated by parenthood, disappointed with life in the United States, unhappily married, stuck with a struggling business, and whose failed entrepreneurial endeavors include professional singer, novelist, chef, teacher, singing coach, and Watsu technician—is the “chosen one” because she fails in so many different ways.
Verse-jumping provides the opportunity to live those parallel genre lives of successful opera singer, movie star, martial artist, and superhero. It is this socialization through Asian American audiencehood that underlies the legibility of the various film-genre worlds of Everything Everywhere All at Once’s multiverse. Despite their differences, the peoples of Asian America can identify as a virtual community because they watch the same movies and recognize each other and themselves in their filmic representations.
There is a crucial difference between shared Asian American experiences and shared emotional literacy in cinematic representations of Asian Americans; the latter makes Everything Everywhere All at Once “so Asian.” Not all Asian Americans run laundries, come from dysfunctional families, or know kung fu, but they know they are seen that way (by non–Asian Americans) in the movies. Some critics may connect the fragmented and disjointed experience of the fracturing multiverse with racist and xenophobic treatment on American soil or being refused acceptance to American cultural citizenship. 20 However, the film does not depict anti-Asian racism or xenophobia from white Americans. 21 Instead, and most poignantly, the film portrays Asian Americans refusing to accept each other.
The film reproduces and critiques the predominant way that Asian Americans recognize themselves: as model-minority successes or failures. 22 Asian Americans are socioeconomically, educationally, racially, and linguistically diverse, but the archetypal representation of Asian immigrants and their children as perfectly suited to achieving success in neoliberal capitalism has harmful effects that extend beyond shaping how mainstream Americans view Asian Americans and other minorities into how Asian Americans perceive each other and themselves. erin Khuê Ninh argues that the story of model-minority success is itself a genre by which Asian Americans negotiate their belonging with other Asian Americans, performing and being an audience to its narrative expectations. 23 The ubiquitous story signifies the act of immigration, voluntary or not, as needing neoliberal justification: successful Asian Americans left home and became “model minorities,” and failed Asian Americans “make nothing” of the lives for which they or their parents left home—like the Wang family.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the Wangs suffer from pressuring themselves and each other to live up to unrealistic expectations for Asian American belonging. Evelyn can never satisfy her father, who wanted a boy and disowned her for choosing love over responsibility. Waymond longs for affection from his wife, who regrets her marriage to a man she finds stupid, impractical, and foolish. Joy cannot communicate with her mother, who thinks she’s gotten fat, hates her tattoo, associates homosexuality with abnormality, and cannot forgive her for not completing a college degree. They know that they have failed in the eyes of their loved ones, and they blame themselves.
These cycles of self-recrimination are perpetuated, leading to pain-filled relations with one another. Yet their successful “model minority” alternative selves enacted in the multiverses similarly suffer. Despite her newfound powers, Evelyn still cannot satisfy Alpha Gong Gong or reignite romance with Waymond. Most tragically, she cannot save Joy from wanting to kill herself.
As the narrative that narrates an Asian American life worth living, the model-minority success/failure story conveys that belonging, even with family, must be earned. Succeed, pretend to, or face rejection from your loved ones. Joy/Jobu’s nihilism stems from recognizing that the same narrative persists in every universe. As a transmigrational being who mastered verse-jumping and code-switching through intensive childhood training, she no longer needs the technology: she inhabits all universes at the same time. A figure of the second-generation model minority, molded to the breaking point by her Alphaverse tiger parents, she develops into a “monster” who wants to destroy each and every genre world of the multiverse. Capable of knowing all, “what makes you tick and [on]what fragile branches your self-worth rests,” Jobu recognizes how genres structure desires and expectations for meaning. Success in one world is failure in another; triumph and defeat are genre cycles; suffering regenerates simply because narrative formulas require it.
How is success defined if not in opposition to failure? Jobu recognizes that social and moral conventions are arbitrary, based on contracts tacitly negotiated through popular culture. “‘Right’ is a tiny box invented by people who are afraid,” she tells Evelyn. “And I know what it feels like to be trapped inside that box.” If the obligations people struggle to fulfill in their lives are based on genre conventions, then suffering is caused by believing oneself to be inhabiting one kind of story versus another.
Jobu creates the “everything bagel” to highlight that absurdity. As scripted by her creators, the Daniels, Jobu utilizes the surreal to distance viewers from narrative immersion, monstrously violating the genre conventions that condition a sense of belonging in Asian America. As a genre master capable of being “everything, everywhere, all at once,” she ultimately seeks connection, hoping to find “someone who could see what I see. Feel what I feel.” Barring that, there’s the bagel. Everything Everywhere All at Once makes clear that the ultimate harm that Asian American families make each other suffer is disconnection. The bagel spells the end of genre worlds, the end of intimate publics, and thus, of all social relations—the destruction of all possible universes in which family can know each other.
Everything Everywhere All at Once uses the multiverse storytelling form to illustrate a process of recovery from self-inflicted wounds. In the primary universe, Evelyn’s only alternative to being cut out of Joy’s life or worse is to imagine other ways of their being together. The film points out that this act of “imagining otherwise,” used to free oneself from habits that reinforce ideological domination by imagining alternatives, is a process facilitated by genre exploration. 24 Only by seeing all the possible worlds that she might inhabit, recognizing how their narrative logics structure her personal desires, and ultimately deciding on her own definitions of meaningful belonging with her loved ones can Evelyn remake her relationships with Joy, Waymond, Gong Gong, and even her (white) IRS auditor.
For example, when Evelyn finally announces to Gong Gong that Becky is not just Joy’s 好朋友 (“good friend”) but her 女朋友(“girlfriend), Gong Gong goes into a daze, repeating the phrase to himself over and over. By redefining the kinds of possible relations of romantic partnership, Evelyn cultivates a new kind of imagination for her father, who can then reevaluate his own understanding of what might be deemed a meaningful life for his granddaughter and his family, maybe even including Becky in it.
The film also highlights how genre literacy can prompt compassion. In another scene parodying The Matrix, the now godlike superhero Evelyn stops a barrage of bullets simply by recognizing their false reality. She then converts those bullets into Waymond’s googly-eye stickers, cheerfully shooting them back at her adversaries and sticking one on her forehead to represent the opening of her “third eye.” Like the bodhisattva Guanyin, who embodies compassion and mercy, Evelyn then uses her verse-jumping superpowers to learn and understand each opponent’s suffering and offer compassion for their pain, whether in the form of a chiropractic adjustment for one enemy or a hug affirming the lovability of her IRS auditor and tormentor. The film uses this comical scene to impart an understanding of genre as a means by which subjects seek to know and be known by others.
The genre of model-minority success/failure conditions Asian American filmmaking and reception, whether by fulfilling the neoliberal dictums of mainstream success or honoring the obligations of antiracist and anticapitalist struggles. Asian American cinema itself has a horizon of expectations informed by its history as protest against the mainstream filmmaking industry as well as transpacific genre films, both of which, on the other hand, still inform a sense of belonging and representation in Asian America. As both product and critique of mainstream popular culture, Everything Everywhere All at Once generates greater possibilities for understanding and evoking the relationalities—often unfair, hegemonic, sexist, heteronormative, but also potentially affirming and healing—that make Asian American cinema itself a genre worth knowing.
As an Asian American born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley by Taiwanese immigrants, I grew up watching both eighties Hollywood movies and awkwardly dubbed popular Hong Kong and Taiwanese films with hard-to-read dual English and Chinese subtitles. My favorite character in my favorite movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), was Short Round, played by Ke Huy Quan at the age of twelve. He was the kid I modeled myself after: smart, resourceful, fluent in English, heroic, and most importantly, valued by his adoptive father figure, Dr. Jones. In the film’s pivotal scene when Indy is brainwashed and in the throes of the evil cult, it is Short Round’s love that wakes him up. Similarly, Evelyn, is in the throes of succumbing—in this case, to the bagel’s enchantments—and it is Quan’s character, Waymond, whose love brings her back.
Only in high school, when I made friends with classmates whose parents immigrated from India and Pakistan, did I realize the racism of that 1984 film’s representations. It was also in high school that I felt validated when I saw in The Matrix a mainstream Hollywood film with a pan-ethnic cast reproducing the cyberpunk motifs of my favorite anime, Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995) and the stunt action style of my favorite Hong Kong martial-arts films.
In college, I began to recognize how blockbuster genre films like the Indiana Jones franchise reproduce the same colonial and orientalist tropes that we had analyzed in class, tropes that made the orphaned East Asian child an assimilated sidekick while relegating South Asians to the occult. It was also in college that I developed an appreciation for the grainy and likely pirated films I watched on VHS cassette tapes that my parents brought home from the video store. I dedicated myself to studying these films, which told stories about people like my grandparents and parents—whom I could neither actually converse with nor ask about their lives without mutual recriminations and accusations.
Only in graduate school, when I made a transpacific move to study those films in Hong Kong, did I begin to understand that my elders had once been young too, with their own “worldly desires” and aspirations before immigrating. 25 Only by closely studying Michelle Yeoh’s performance as the 女俠 (“female knight-errant”) Yu Shu Lien in Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) did I realize that a middle-aged career woman like my mother might actually have her own personal desires, disappointments, and difficulties aside from professional and familial responsibilities. And it was in graduate school that I read that the filmmakers whose films I studied and researched for my dissertation, such as Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, had been dismissed by some Asian American film and media scholars as no longer part of Asian American cinema because their later films “did not foreground Asian American characters and themes,” thus making a “political choice to hide behind the mask of a ‘color-blind’ race-neutrality in the name of a false universalism and bourgeois humanism that nevertheless defers to whiteness as the presumptive standard of superiority.” 26 I worried that my scholarship on these Asian American directors, demographically anyway, might not be welcome in Asian American film and media studies because they, and thus I, failed to be Asian American enough.
If subjects learn what to expect from, how to perform in, and how to relate with their social world by consuming mass-media genres, then the personal is constructed through genre. However, as Everything Everywhere All at Once demonstrates, genres are also personal: they shape lived experience, but they are also a mode of cultural creation. 27 I found new ways of recognizing my family and myself through transpacific genre stories that revised my previous understandings of myself as a failed Asian American. Through a process of generic recognition, participants in an intimate public can engage with each other, keeping alive the possibility of reshaping those relations.
Everything Everywhere All at Once reveals the experiential power of genre: to know and understand others through the stories they love and with which they identify. Mass-media genres are the means though which publics become intimate. By referencing transpacific genre films to represent Asian America, Everything Everywhere All at Once stakes a claim for rehabilitating relations in Asian and Asian American cinema—and lives too.
With thanks to Allen Hong, Esther Nguonly, Tyler Holland, Charlotte Chang, Vanessa Coe, and Teresa Lau.
- Dorothy Wai Sim Lau, Reorienting Chinese Stars in Global Polyphonic Networks: Voice, Ethnicity, Power (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 39.
- Nancy Wang Yuen, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
- Jun Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: Histories, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Peter X. Feng, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Russell Leong, ed., Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Visual Communications, 1991); Denise Khor, “History before and behind the Camera: An Interview with Renee Tajima-Peña,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 21–29.
- In an interview series with the New York Times, many Asian American feature filmmakers discuss feeling pigeonholed into an Asian American film category that lacks coherence despite its historical import. Brandon Yu and Justin J Wee, “A Vision of Asian-American Cinema That Questions the Very Premise,” New York Times, February 11, 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/movies/asian-american-cinema.htm.
- Brian Hu, “The Coin of the Realm: Valuing the Asian American Feature-Length Film,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ed. Vincent Pham and Lori Kido Lopez (New York: Routledge, 2017), 64.
- Hu, 64.
- Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, “What Was Asian American Cinema?,” Cinema Journal 56, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 131.
- Melissa Phruksachart, “The Bourgeois Cinema of Boba Liberalism,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 3 (Spring 2020): 61–62.
- Phruksachart, 60.
- Lori Kido Lopez, “Excessively Asian: Crying, Crazy Rich Asians, and the Construction of Asian American Audiences,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 38, no. 2, (2021): 143.
- Anne Anlin Cheng, “‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Is a Deeply Asian American Film,” Washington Post, May 4, 2022, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/05/04/everything-everywhere-asian-american-pessimism/.
- Nancy Wang Yuen, “‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Gives Us the Asian Woman Hero We Need,” Diaspora, April 6, 2022, https://thediasporatimes.com/2022/04/06/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-gives-us-the-asian-woman-hero-we-need/; Laura Zornosa, “How ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Helps to Heal Generational Trauma,” New York Times, April 15, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/movies/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-interviews.html; Jeff Yang, “Opinion: This Movie’s Asian American Metaphor Is a Message to the Not-So-United States,” CNN, January 24, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/04/21/opinions/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-fiction-of-asian-america-yang/index.html; R. F. Kuang, “Everything Everywhere All at Once Is the Non-Diaspora Diaspora Story We’ve Been Waiting For,” Tor.com, April 26, 2022, http://www.tor.com/2022/04/26/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-review/.
- Jay Caspian Kang and Tammy Kim, “‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Deep Dive,” Time to Say Goodbye, May 24, 2022, https://goodbye.substack.com/p/everything-everywhere-all-at-once#details.
- Bertin Huynh, “The West Misses the Point of Everything Everywhere All at Once – It Gets the Asian Psyche,” The Guardian, May 16, 2022, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/may/16/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-asian-hollywood-film.
- Alain Boillat, Cinema as a Worldbuilding Machine in the Digital Era: Essay on Multiverse Films and TV Series (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2022), 32.
- Stacilee Ford, Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting’s “An Autumn’s Tale”: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), 2.
- Boillat, Cinema as a Worldbuilding Machine, 291.
- Barry Keith Grant, “Experience and Meaning in Genre Films,” in Film Genre Reader IV, ed. Barry Keith Grant (New York: University of Texas Press, 2012): 134–36.
- Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 5.
- Cheng, “Deeply Asian American.”
- Certain versions of the film were edited due to comments in mandarin that Evelyn makes to refer to a customer that might be considered anti-Semitic. See Gabriella Geisinger, “Everything Everywhere All at Once Directors Are Glad to Talk about ‘Big Nose’ Controversy,” Digital Spy, May 4, 2022, http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a39902848/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-big-nose-jewish-antisemitism/. It’s also worth considering the name Waymond itself to be ridiculing Chinese native speakers who have trouble distinguishing between the phonics for the letters r and w—long a standard comedic trope.
- In The Asian American Achievement Paradox (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2015), Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou provide empirical evidence that second-generation Asian Americans from different social classes and ethnic groups believe that “earning straight As, graduating as the high school valedictorian, earning a degree from an elite university, attaining an advanced degree, and working in one of four high-status professional fields: medicine, law, engineering or science” is the definition of Asian cultural identity (6).
- erin Khuê Ninh, Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021), 66.
- Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
- Brian Hu, Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).
- Darrell Hamamoto, introduction to Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, ed. Darrell Hamamoto and Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 15.
- Virginia Jackson, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 12, 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/function-criticism-present-time/.
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