Michelle Yeoh, Martial Arts and the Multiverse: In the Year’s Wildest Movie | movies

There’s a line Michelle Yeoh delivers in Everything Everywhere All at Once that’s sure to resonate with anyone today: “Very busy today – no time to help you.”

The internet has broken us. Overwhelmed with information (and misinformation), we are overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Notifications ring 24/7, the scroll never ends. We seek solace not in others, but in our devices – portals to our curated content and community bubbles.

“Something about modern life is like a story from the multiverse,” says Daniel Scheinart, one half of the directing duo known as Daniels. “Everyone is in their own little universe. We all log onto social media and discover these subcultures, which are sometimes really beautiful and fascinating, other times nightmarish and conspiracy-laden. It’s a very confusing experience.”

This confusion is the basis of Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, which already induces a breathless rush praise: Heralded as the first great film of the year, it became Letterboxd’s highest-rated film of all time almost immediately after its limited release (not to mention box office numbers and sell-out theatrical engagements seldom seen since Covid).

Evelyn (Yeoh, in a career-defining role), the owner of a stressed-out laundromat, is at rock bottom as her relationship with her husband (Ke Huy Quan, in a sparkling return to film) and daughter (Stephanie Hsu) has shattered almost beyond repair , as a dreaded encounter with a ruthless IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) reveals the existence of an endangered multiverse that only Evelyn can possibly save. Such a summary does little good for a manic, wacky film full of pop culture references, chilling body humor and breakneck kung fu choreography that also manages to be genuinely moving and inspire a heartwarming optimism that affirms the primacy of kindness and human connection in the face of a black hole of nihilism. All in all, as many have, the title delivers.

After their bloat and erection-ridden Swiss Army Man in 2016, Scheinert and Daniel Kwan set out to make their version of The Matrix. In both traits, human bodies manage to transcend their realistic mortal forms and become vessels for something far 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 two, who started out as music video directors, telling stories without dialogue.

Via Zoom, Kwan holds up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, which explores the premise of true free will: “When we first started directing, I really hated the job. I felt like I was just controlling these people and forcing them to recreate something in my head.” Like Swiss Army Man, in which a dead body turns out to be a Swiss army knife for the protagonist, Daniels’ video for Foster embodies the People’s Houdini a similar angst, in which record label cronies manipulate the corpses of band members in front of a cheering crowd. But Kwan notes that they’re beginning to move away from that guilt about the puppet to something more optimistic. “Instead of ships with no autonomy to control, what a lovely gift to have all these capabilities of being a ship that can hold anything.”

Including hot dog fingers horrified Evelyn is saddled with in a universe. “We wanted to play an empathy game with our audience and come up with a universe that Evelyn really doesn’t want to be in — one that’s visually gross, in which she’s in love with her least favorite persona — and then see if.” we can do it. The audience and our main character see the beauty in it,” explains Scheinert, before laughing at how they coaxed Curtis and Yeoh into those scenes when the actors expressed skepticism.

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

Much of the film is told through the eyes of first-generation immigrants trying to understand this country, navigate the bureaucracy, pay taxes, socialize, and do business with other Americans. Kwan didn’t originally intend to feature a Chinese-American immigrant family as prominently, but it came naturally because of the genre: her favorite films included Jackie Chan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, of course, The Matrix, which featured action choreography Hong Kong in the foreground and center. Seeing a martial art through the line, they realized they could cast Asians as protagonists. “How exciting would that be?” Kwan remembers thinking. From then on, they began writing down 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.

Everywhere Everywhere draws heavily on the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, which both Daniels love so dearly. After the first draft, Scheinert realized how much Stephen Chow’s nonsensical slapstick had influenced her writing. “He was one of the first Asian filmmakers I fell in love with and who combined sounds in a really shocking way,” he says, recalling the impact of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer after they were hysterically funny like Looney Tunes.”

Not to mention Jackie Chan and his trademark playful fight sequences that use everyday objects as weapons. ​“Who didn’t love Jackie Chan in the ’90s?” Kwan notes, and Scheinert points out, “Everybody fell in love with him, and then Hollywood didn’t learn its lesson about making action clear and concise and fun and funny. It’s so wild that his work here drew so much attention and was so rewarding, and yet then that style of action just went away.”

When Daniels first started writing Everything Everywhere, a story centered around an Asian-American family was far from a Hollywood recipe for success. Yeoh first met her two weeks before the release of Crazy Rich Asians; No one was sure how it would be received. Kwan recalls Yeoh remarking at the time, “You’re taking a lot of risks with this film. It’s very brave to make this big action movie about a Chinese family.”

Michelle Yeoh and Jing Li in All at Once
Michelle Yeoh and Jing Li. Photo: Allyson Riggs/AP

Five years ago, an Asian-American in the industry reading her script provided a colorful Pokémon evolution-inspired metaphor that has stuck with Kwan. “They said the bulbasaurs of Asian-American film were like Joy Luck Club or The Wedding Banquet — important stories that nobody was telling about a very specific cultural narrative at the time. Because of those earlier films, we can now watch things like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, which starr Asian Americans in our own genre films – these are the Ivysaurs of Asian American cinema. And our film is a Venusaur.”

Everything Everywhere only existed because of those predecessors, he claims: “This film shows that Asian-American cinema can be anything it wants to be.” And it just so happens to coincide with the recent releases of Kogonada’s After Yang and Domee Shi’s Turning Red . All three “reflect basically the same sentiment,” says Kwan, “that is, we’re going to tell whatever we want to tell.” Ultimately, Kwan has high hopes for the growing inclusivity of American cinema: “I’m really looking forward to that next five to ten years. Hopefully every single marginalized community gets this opportunity to step up and say, ‘Look, I know the narrative is usually like this, but we have so much more to offer.’”

So far, Everything Everywhere has received such a resounding response that one suspects there’s more to the game than just what’s on screen. “The whole idea for the film came from watching everything polarize and shift in all directions,” says Kwan. “Everyone feels that stretch. And this film was an attempt to hold the worlds together and to envision a place where everything actually belongs together and exists for a reason – where things aren’t this chaotic, frightening mess, but instead are a beautiful mass of possibilities. I think people need to hear that now.”

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