Everything Everywhere All at Once Offers a Hopeful Vision for Immigrant Families
Frankie Huang on Trauma and Transformation in the Daniels’ Oscar-Nominated Film
In the world we live in now, a flight between Hong Kong and Los Angeles is just 13 hours long. But the journey, for an immigrant family, can lead to the kind of transformation that renders us unrecognizable to those we leave behind.
What’s more, the children we birth in the land we now call home may not make sense to us either. When familial familiarity is supplanted by incomprehensible shifts, sometimes an unthinkable question is asked: is this stranger with my child’s face someone I can still love?
This is an unspoken question that Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) wonders of her adult daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), in the Daniels’ Oscar-nominated Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s also a question posed by Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong (James Hong), who comes to a bleaker conclusion. The film takes place over the course of a single day, during which Evelyn’s struggling laundromat is audited by the IRS, her husband tries to serve her divorce papers, and her estranged father visits from Hong Kong, to whom Joy tries to come out as queer. As it turns out, these conflicts reflect a much larger and graver one elsewhere in the multiverse, where another version of Joy morphed into a bloodthirsty, omnipotent being after her universe’s Evelyn pushed her beyond her limits.
The theme of generational tension within immigrant families isn’t new, but never has it played out in a multiverse scenario where different incarnations of the same embattled family members each try to do right by one another, and themselves. Between universe jumping, a frantic fanny-pack battle, and an apocalyptic bagel, a grandfather commands his daughter to kill his granddaughter in a bid to save the world(s), having given up on rescuing a girl thoroughly corrupted by her own suffering. In this, I saw echoes of my own family dynamic, and the painful, unresolved misunderstandings between my grandmother, my mother, and me.
The theme of generational tension within immigrant families isn’t new, but never has it played out in a multiverse scenario.
To be clear, nobody in my family tried to kill me (nor have I tried to destroy the multiverse), but there have been numerous moments that created distance in our relationships when we could have grown closer. I never completely knew what specific Chineseness my elders wanted me to embody, and in turn, my identity as a 1.5-generation Chinese American is alien to them, understood only in abstraction. In place of a substantial intimacy, our bond seems to be built mostly on blood and obligations. We don’t know if we like each other, but we do love each other, and wish each other well. A lonely, one-note kind of love.
I’ve heard other diaspora Americans describe something similar, that their sourceland-born parents and grandparents view them as an altered version of who they should be, that their American upbringing has scrambled them with strange values and proclivities that clash with their heritage. This is why so many of us see ourselves in Joy, whose exhaustion from having to defend her own identity to her family is all too real.
For a long time, I wondered why it’s so hard for so many immigrant families to feel close. What makes it so difficult sometimes for parents and children to see each other for who they truly are, to learn each other’s dreams and fears and outlooks on life? Why doesn’t love make this easier, instead of often getting in the way?
It took multiple viewings of Everything Everywhere for me to see how immigration fractures intergenerational relationships within immigrant families, doing damage that requires mending. While tumbling through the film’s rich text, I saw how inevitably and matter-of-factly the Wang family struggles to understand, trust, and cooperate with other versions of themselves from the multiverse, all while the “original” Wang family struggles to understand, trust, and cooperate with each other— even without the interference of otherworldly hijinks.These characters desperately need to reach one another, with little idea of how to do so.
We see this torment in Joy’s enormous sad eyes when she waits for Evelyn to say the right thing. We see it in Evelyn’s numb, dissociated expressions, not trusting that Joy wants the right things. We see it in Gong Gong’s barely contained impatience when Joy struggles to string together a single sentence in Mandarin, which isn’t even the Sinitic language he spoke (it’s Cantonese). The stakes may be lower, but the disconnect is the same as when Evelyn finds herself in a supply closet with the battle-hardened Alphaverse version of her mild-mannered husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), as he tells her about the inter-dimensional entity (Jobu Tapaki) coming to kill her. In each scenario, these characters desperately need to reach one another, with little idea of how to do so.
Even without traversing the multiverse, as immigrants, we become different versions of our former selves, whether we know it or not. Immigration is more than moving to a new place, but a metamorphosis we undergo, like shifting into a version of ourselves from another universe. For the Wangs and for my own family, the source of familial fracturing is for this metamorphosis to go unacknowledged by the people who presume to know you best.
Worse, still, when they don’t know they can’t just continue the relationship they already have with you, but must work to get to know this new version of you. My mother often says that no one knows me as well as she does, and I smile wryly to myself, because to me she’s just admitting to not knowing me at all. Like how Gong Gong writes off Evelyn as “always running away, never finishing anything she started,” my mother is also full of impressions of me, many of them shallow or just plain wrong.
Even without traversing the multiverse, as immigrants, we become different versions of our former selves.
When I think about this kind of denial, I find myself sympathetic, because wrapped up in it is the fear that the child you knew and loved is gone, and to acknowledge how immigration has changed them is to acknowledge that they will never again be as you knew them before, or as you imagined they’d be. So many immigrants give up so much to live in a new country, not knowing there is even more to lose. To acknowledge the inevitability of immigration’s transformation is to acknowledge the possibility that we may not like, or have much in common with, the new version of our loved one.
In Everything Everywhere, I saw Gong Gong and Evelyn’s respective determination to destroy and save Joy as possibilities for how to deal with this particular kind of familial fracture. Gong Gong rejects his granddaughter for who she’s become, but Evelyn chooses acceptance and works toward understanding the things about Joy that previously made no sense to her. That process begins with mutually acknowledging the distance between them, and committing to closing it, so that they can truly hold each other. The healing power of love may be a well-trodden cliché, but in Everything Everywhere it feels hard-earned, and offers a hopeful vision of how this kind of emotional damage can eventually be undone.
This message rises to the surface at the climax of the movie, as we cut back and forth between a dreamy, saturated Wong Kar-Wai universe and the IRS office from our world that’s been torn apart by combat. Two versions of Waymond deliver an unforgettable speech on the necessity of being kind and the strategic importance of seeing the good side of things. The original Waymond, who remains the least aware of what has transpired within the multiverse, shields Evelyn against Alpha Gong Gong’s attackers and cries, “Please, be kind. Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” To me, this quote embodies the radical act of accepting the blunt force trauma of immigration. Even though the damage can’t be undone, healing is still possible.
My favorite scene in the movie is when Evelyn and Joy find themselves in a universe that doesn’t support life, and take the form of two large rocks, all their discernable differences erased and their struggle momentarily placed on hold. Joy notes how peaceful it is, how everything feels far away, and what a relief it is that they can stop hurting each other and just be.
I wish I could sit as a rock on the edge of a great canyon, next to my rock mother and rock grandmother, and communicate plainly about feeling small and meaningless. After all, “nothing matters,” the optimistic mantra at the heart of the movie, means that nothing—not even the transformation of immigration—can keep us from learning to love each other again.