When Something is Nearly ‘Everything’

There’s no fucking way they’re gonna be able to land this, I thought to myself.

I’m in a movie theater seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once for the first time. I had heard about it long ago, and was cautiously optimistic.

In the trailer, there’s Michelle Yeoh, who I had been a fan of since she went by Michelle Khan, when I was a young college student who’d go to the budget Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis every weekend to see whatever Hong Kong action film that Asia Media Access was showing. Hey, that’s the Chinese Vietnamese kid from Goonies, and the racist ass Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom movie. Even though he was of a different ethnicity than me, he was a refugee from Vietnam, like me, and for decades I had wondered what happened to that guy. And the criminally underrated James Hong is always a welcome sight.

I had been scouring the internet to see when EEAAO was showing in Minnesota. I happened to find a ticket for a special early screening, in a nice modern multiplex in an area of town whose average income bracket vastly dwarfed my parents’. Not too far from there, and not too long ago, I was followed around in a bookstore by several employees who were making sure I wasn’t stealing anything, some of them more adept than others at hiding it. At this point, I should note that I am an author with several published books in print. When I share this story later, my friends suggest that I should have walked to a shelf with one of my books on it, pulled it out, and stared right back.

My own Vietnamese refugee parents were struggling, like many others, to figure out a way to live their lives after their neighborhood was forever changed in the aftermath of the unrest after the murder of George Floyd by a racist white police officer. A few months prior, my gender nonconforming Asian American child had moved over 1,000 miles away from me. Every day, when I could find a quiet moment to myself, I was literally in tears about it. I tell you all of this because I went to this movie, like I had gone to so many movies in decades of being a fan of film, with zero expectations that it would heal me. I was just hoping it would be a decent film, a fun and sorely needed distraction.

In the dark, surrounded by strangers, I watch the story of this seemingly ordinary East Asian immigrant family, each of them tense with intergenerational trauma, go through an unreal journey that involved manipulative anamorphic raccoons, cross-universe hopping, and martial arts scenes involving butt plugs. It referenced so many things I love: Hong Kong movies, Douglas Adams books, The Matrix, Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mood for Love (casting Ke Huy Quan as a sort of avatar for Tony Leung was an impossibly tall order that he somehow pulled off beautifully), and so much more.

But it’s a lot. With about a quarter of the movie to go, I am thrilled, overwhelmed, and prepping myself for disappointment. This has all been very fun, and delightfully weird, and it all looks fantastic, and the entire damn cast is killing it. But how can they possibly end this with any sort of satisfaction? Jobu Tupaki is right, isn’t she? The world is a cruel place. Isn’t it better to just be nothing?

The answer, of course, is kindness, and embracing the worst parts of yourself, and learning to do that for others in your life that you love, and saying that you are sorry. One could argue that, at the end of the movie, everyone is still kind of a hot mess. There is no clear resolution, except that these characters love one another enough to continue their lives with one another. I never, ever, ever, cry during the movies. I was openly weeping by the end of this one. I had conflicting feelings after the first time I saw it. Part of me wanted to shake every person I saw and rave like a slobbering lunatic about the madhouse brilliance I just saw. Part of me just wanted to hold it, quietly, all to myself, some secret gem that would lose its value if I shared it. As I drive home, it strikes me that it is not a perfect movie. But in all my years of film fandom, it is absolutely, and easily, my favorite.

Months later, I’ve seen the film about five times, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. There is buzz that it will be nominated for Oscars, which I quickly dismiss. The film is way too weird, too fun, and definitely way too Asian American to win any awards. The aggregate critic and audience website Rotten Tomatoes shows that both critics and audiences as a whole thought that Top Gun: Maverick was a better film, and my pessimism seems to be affirmed as I see many critics rank EEAAO very low in their top ten lists of films released that year, if it’s included at all (and no, I’m not the type to threaten critics or other people online for their opinions — I may think y’all are stupid and have bad taste, but harassment over it is not at all my jam). And even if it does get any nods for Oscars, I remember there’s the long history of the Academy recognizing films with majority Asian casts without honoring any of the actual Asian and Asian American cast members — the most recent cases being Slumdog Millionaire and Parasite.

I’m writing this a few days after Everything Everywhere All at Once won seven Academy Awards, and most of the major categories, happily proving me wrong. Now, here comes the backlash, which to be honest had been bubbling long before EEAAO had won any Oscars. There were people and critics opining blatantly that the film was nonsensical, overrated, and terrible. They just didn’t get it, they say. There were people and critics who dissed the film but condescendingly acknowledged the importance of diversity in Hollywood. And here I find myself again, trying to decide whether to roll my sleeves up, or keep all of this to myself.

Let me be clear. I am at an age where I do not enjoy explaining myself. Nor pointing out that I try, very hard, not to infringe on anyone else’s joy. Even if they cannot find it in themselves to return that courtesy to me.

I haven’t been able to take the Oscars seriously since Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. I’m not really invested in award season beyond what they tell us about our culture at that specific moment in time, much of which we already know. One great night doesn’t erase nearly a century of the Academy’s exclusion – certainly, of Asian Americans, but also Native American, Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, Arab, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+, and people who represent intersections of some or all of those historically marginalized communities. At the same time, seeing great art made by and for us, can bring us so much joy. Ultimately, while representation definitely matters, and the history made at the Oscars is no small thing, I’m not overly interested in arguing about it. There’s already a lot out there on this.

Nor do I feel like anyone, regardless of race, gender, or any host of identities and intersections therein, are required to love or even like this film. Art is subjective.

I do feel people with a certain sensibility — why don’t we go ahead and call it Eurocentrism — are not examining their reaction to the film; i.e., this film does not meet a narrow sense of criteria by which I judge a film to be great or not. And there are nonwhite people doing this as well, because Eurocentrism and white patriarchal supremacy, while ultimately benefitting white people the most, is also a structure and a mindset through which many of us operate in one way or another, sometimes unconsciously. Including me.

While I want to make clear that no one, regardless of race, gender, or any intersection of any identity, is obligated to love or even like EEAAO, it seems so many people are comfortable offering opinions that put down EEAAO that are loaded with unchecked Euocentrism, and this happens to fall neatly in line with a common assumption that Asian American perspectives don’t matter, due to Orientalist notions always positioning us as “other” in the West, or to a belief that Asian Americans really don’t suffer from institutional racism and therefore there is no real need to check Eurocentrism in this regard.

Everyone has a right to their opinion , so here’s mine: Asian Americans had to co-create one of the most creative, offbeat, virtuosic, fun, and big-hearted films in history in order to even be put into the conversation with business-as-usual straight white (mostly) male films that it was put in competition with. And they had to do it with way less resources. And if you think that’s harsh, understand that I am trying to keep with EEAAO’s spirit of kindness, and believe me, that is the kindest way I can put it.

This is not an argument to force people to appreciate the film. Rather, I point out that there is a stunning lack of curiosity by those who hold Eurocentric views to ask themselves why they may dislike or detest something that so many people from a historically marginalized community — or in this case, people with intersectional identities from several marginalized communities — find meaningful. Writer Rebecca Solnit writes about it beautifully here in a social media post:

Consider how many risks the filmmakers took, how many plates they had in the air, and recognize their ambition. Think about how difficult it is to incorporate special effects convincingly into a modern film, and see how they did it masterfully with a fraction of the money and artists. They had to juggle many different characters with different lived experiences — female, non-English speaking, queer, elderly — and give each their agency and their due, and they did it with profound empathy. Remember how often that wild artistic vision in the West is often executed with a coldness and outsider distance, where exclusive “cool” is the highest currency, and be awed that this film instead welcomes everyone with open arms to its vision. And yes, think of the many times Hollywood has tried to capitalize and then miscast stars who found their success overseas, like Michelle Yeoh, or how the racist dismissal of Asian Americans from the industry led to talented actors like Ke Huy Quan to be forced out of acting altogether, and marvel at how this film offers them roles of substance that are exactly suited to their strengths and creativity. Remember how the industry has been fraught with stories of abuse and appreciate how the entire cast and crew seem to have an authentic love and respect for one another.

They created a challenging yet fun piece of pop art that welcomed everyone with open arms without pandering to a white audience, and never lost sight of the humanity of the working class Asian American family at the core of their story. I am bullish for it because I could have never imagined having the privilege to witness and enjoy all of this in one piece of art in my lifetime.

There, I’ve done it. I’ve put an essay out in the world that will most likely piss off a bunch of you who have been pissing me off. Completed the circle — or the bagel, if you will. So in that way, I’ve failed, too. Big surprise, I’m not perfect. Neither is this film. But I never expect any meaningful art, or really pretty much anything, to be perfect. I am slowly learning to do this for myself too, and the hot mess that my life sometimes feels like, when if offered the chance to walk into the Everything-Nothing bagel, I’d do it.

I love the best and worst parts of it, which is exactly what it encourages us all to do for one another. I love that this movie feels like it was made for me, which is not a privilege I often experience, and that you could feel that it was made for you, too.

One thought on “When Something is Nearly ‘Everything’

  1. Thank you Bao for putting words to the way so many of us feel, when we don’t have the words to explain it. Thank you for authenticating our reaction to the film and also to the critics.

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