Monday, April 22

Michelle Yeoh, martial arts and the multiverse: inside the year’s wildest movie | movies

There’s a line Michelle Yeoh delivers in Everything Everywhere All at Once that surely resonates with everyone in this day and age: “Very busy today – no time to help you.”

The internet has broken us. Inundated with information (and misinformation), we’re overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Notifications chime at all hours, the scroll never ends. 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 feels resonant with a multiverse story,” says Daniel Scheinart, half of the directing duo known as Daniels. “Everyone’s in their own little universes. We’re all logging into social media and discovering these subcultures that are sometimes really beautiful and fascinating, sometimes nightmarish and conspiracy-laden. It’s a very confusing experience.”

That confusion is the basis for Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is already inspiring a frenzy of breathless praising: It’s being heralded as the year’s first great film and almost instantly became Letterboxd’s highest-rated film ever just from its limited release (not to mention box office numbers and sold-out theatrical engagements rarely seen since before Covid).

Harried laundromat proprietor Evelyn (Yeoh, in a career-defining role) is at rock bottom, with her relationships with her husband (Ke Huy Quan, in a resplendent return to film) and daughter (Stephanie Hsu) frayed nearly beyond repair, when a dreaded meeting with a ruthless IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) reveals the existence of an imperiled multiverse that only Evelyn may be able to save. Such a summary does little favor to a manic, madcap film packed with pop-culture references, cringe-worthy body humor and breakneck kung fu choreography that also manages to be genuinely moving, inspiring a heart-soaring optimism that reaffirms the primacy of kindness and human connection in the face of an everything-bagel black hole of nihilism. All to say, as many have, the title delivers.

Following their 2016 flatulence-and-erection-driven Swiss Army Man, Scheinert and Daniel Kwan set their sights on doing their version of The Matrix. In both of their features, human bodies manage to transcend their realistic mortal forms, becoming vessels for something much greater than what they can do in real life. That stems from the directors’ shared love of dance and physical comedy, which became a valuable vocabulary between the pair, who started out as music-video directors telling stories without dialogue.

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Via Zoom, Kwan holds up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, which explores the premise of genuine free will: “When we started directing, I really hated the job. I felt like I was just controlling these humans, forcing them to recreate something in my head.” Like Swiss Army Man, in which a corpse reveals itself 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 cronies manipulating band members’ cadavers before a jubilant crowd. But Kwan notes that they’re beginning to move away from this guilt about puppeting toward something more optimistic. “Rather than vessels with no autonomy to be controlled, what a beautiful gift to have all that possibility, to be a vessel to hold anything.”

Including hot-dog fingers, which Evelyn is horrified to find herself saddled with in one universe. “We wanted to play an empathy game with our audience and come up with a universe that Evelyn would really not want to be in – one that’s visually gross, where she’s in love with her least favorite person – and then see if we can make the audience and our main character see the beauty in it,” Scheinert explains, before laughing that that’s how they talked Curtis and Yeoh into those scenes when the actors voiced skepticism.

Scheinert and Kwan, the directing duo known as Daniels. Photograph: Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

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. Kwan didn’t originally intend to feature so prominently a Chinese American immigrant family, but it followed naturally given the genre: among their favorite films were those of Jackie Chan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, of course, The Matrix, which placed Hong Kong action choreography front and center. Seeing a martial-arts through line, they realized they could cast Asians as protagonists. “How exciting would that be?” Kwan recalls thinking. From there, they began to write 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.

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Everything Everywhere draws heavily from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema that both Daniels are so fond of. After the first draft, Scheinert saw how much Stephen Chow’s nonsensical brand of slapstick had influenced their writing. “He was one of the first Asian film-makers that I fell in love with who really combined tones in a shocking way,” he says, remembering the impact of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer. “Those movies are so upsetting and brutal right after being hysterically funny like Looney Tunes.”

Not to mention Jackie Chan and his trademark playful combat sequences involving the use of everyday objects as weapons. ​”Who didn’t love Jackie Chan in the 90s?” Kwan notes, with Scheinert pointing out, “Everyone fell in love with him, and then Hollywood didn’t learn his lesson on how to make 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 style of action then just disappeared.

When Daniels began writing Everything Everywhere, a story centered on an Asian American family was far from a recipe for Hollywood success. Yeoh first met with them two weeks before the release of Crazy Rich Asians; no one was certain how it would be received. Kwan recalls Yeoh remarking then, “You guys are taking a lot of risks with this movie. It’s very brave to center this big action movie around a Chinese family.”

Michelle Yeoh and Jing Li in Everything Everywhere All At Once
Michelle Yeoh and Jing Li. Photograph: Allyson Riggs/AP

Five years ago, an Asian American in the industry who read their script provided a colorful, Pokémon-evolution-inspired metaphor that has remained with Kwan. “They said the bulbasaurs of Asian American film 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. Because of those earlier films, we’re now able to watch things like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, with Asian Americans starring in our own genre films – those are the Ivysaurs of Asian American cinema. And our film is a Venusaur.”

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Everything Everywhere could only exist because of those predecessors, he maintains: “This movie shows that Asian American cinema can be anything it wants to be.” And it happens to coincide with the recent releases of Kogonada’s After Yang and Domee Shi’s Turning Red. All three “basically echo the same feeling,” Kwan says, “which is we’re going to tell whatever story we want to tell.” Ultimately, Kwan has great hope for the growing inclusivity of American cinema: “I’m very excited for the next five to 10 years. Hopefully, every single marginalized community gets this opportunity to announce themselves and be like, ‘Look, I know that the narrative is usually this, but there’s so much more to us.’”

So far Everything Everywhere has received such a resounding response that one suspects there’s something more at play than just what’s on screen. “The whole idea for the film came from watching everything get polarized and pushed in every separate direction,” Kwan says. “Everyone’s feeling this stretch. And this film was an attempt to hold the worlds together and imagine a place where everything actually all belongs and exists for a reason – where things aren’t this chaotic, terrifying mess but instead a beautiful mass filled with possibility. I think people need to hear that right now.”

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