I saw every woman in my family in Michelle Yeoh’s rare, complex portrait of a middle-aged Asian American woman in Everything Everywhere All at Once. I recognized my sharp-tongued working-class nai-nai who lived multiple lifetimes worth of disappointments. Yeoh perfectly captured my immigrant mother’s longing, terror, and evergreen disappointment in me, her only child.
I even saw myself, an Asian American woman laboring to shed intergenerational trauma in a country that often treats me like I don’t belong.
When the film begins, we are introduced to Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang, an exhausted immigrant laundromat owner crushed by unending work demands, an inability to connect with her family, and a dreaded tax audit. At first, Evelyn conjures up a familiar stereotype of a Tiger mom who speaks with an accent. But through a multiverse premise, writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as “Daniels”) expands Evelyn to infinite iterations that vary from Wong-Kar-wai-glamor to Stephen-Chow-absurd.
Alongside complex characters played by Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan and James Hong, the multiverse concept is an ingenious counter-narrative to the historical erasure and one-dimensional Hollywood portraits of Asians, and Asian women in particular. Moreover, Hollywood needs to take note of the record-breaking box-office success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, demonstrating a strong audience for stories starring Asians.
Yeoh’s role is a unicorn. In fact, this is the first theatrical feature that Yeoh, 59, has led after more than 20 years working in Hollywood. Hollywood studio films have a history of excluding Asian women—especially those 40 and older. In a study I co-authored, it was found that within the top 1,300 box office films from 2007-2019, there were only 6 Asian women leads and none were over 40 years of age. Since then, S. Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung won a best supporting actress Oscar for her supporting role in Minari (2020). However, in the 94 years of the Academy Awards, no Asian woman has ever won Best Actress.
This is not for lack of talent, as evidenced by Yeoh’s performance. The actress showcases her ability to seamlessly transition from comedy to action to drama often in the same scene. In her primary universe, Evelyn is a working class woman with a dysfunctional family life. In another universe, she plays an approximate version of the real-life Yeoh —complete with martial arts badassery and celebrity status (even using Yeoh’s red carpet photos from real-life premieres — including Crazy Rich Asians). In this universe, ripped right out of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a glamorous Evelyn and dashing Waymond (Quan) are forlorn lovers rather than a ragged couple on the brink of divorce. Other iterations of Evelyn include a sign spinner, a Chinese opera star, a Benihana-like chef, a woman with hotdog hands (you’ve got to see it to believe it), a rock, a 2-D drawing, a piñata, and more.
Besides breadth of representation, Everything Everywhere also provides depth of character in Evelyn. As the film progresses, Evelyn transforms from an Asian woman who crumbles into a fetal position at the sight of danger, to a powerful Asian martial arts master who overcomes generational trauma while slaying her external enemies. By representing her this way, Daniels help dispel the idea that Asian women are dehumanized victims. This is such a crucial representation given that Asian American women are under attack in record numbers.
One study found that 74% of Asian American, Pacific Islander women experienced racism in the past year. Between March 19, 2020 and December 31, 2021, there were almost 11,000 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with AAPI Women reporting 68% of the cases. In 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339 percent nationwide, with the list of murdered and assaulted Asian women in the United States growing every week.
In this time of elevated anti-Asian hate, we need the fully human — and badass Evelyn Wang to uplift Asian women in the diaspora and help all audiences identify and empathize with Asian women.
When Waymond tells Evelyn that all of her “disappointments” have led to her moment of empowerment, it was as if he was addressing every Asian woman in the diaspora. That all of our fears, trauma and disappointments can be leveraged and transformed for our survival, empowerment and flourishing. We can begin by embracing all parts of ourselves–the parts we are proud of and the parts that make us say, “I’m not the Evelyn you’re looking for.” Because this film is exactly what we need, for a time such as this.