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I want a love that spans the multiverse: a personal essay about Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

By: Virginia Li

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

I had entered the theater with little expectations, merely curious about what Michelle Yeoh could do in an absurdist comedy- and I exited with mascara streaking my cheeks, giggling from the discomfort of publicly crying about a movie that hit a little too close to home.

This is not your ordinary superhero multiverse film about love and what if’s and identity and saving the world. This is a multigenre absurdist masterpiece: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (EEAAO) is now my favorite movie ever.

I’m no film critic; I like to rate movies based on how intensely they break my heart- and how well they repair it. The Daniels had lassoed me in by the heartstrings. Every new scene pulled me closer and closer into the story. It was the human detail that drew me in: the soy sauce noodles for breakfast; the dining table used to pay bills, check mail, and do anything other than eat; and Evelyn’s well-intentioned but callous remark, “You have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.”

I could write endlessly about the parallels between the Wang family and my own. I think every immigrant kid can relate. There Evelyn was, a reflection of my mother, who worked tirelessly to support her family. My mom also owns her own business and has incredible sales prowess- she could sell a piano to someone without a musical bone in their body. But she could never so much look me in the eye and tell me she was proud of me.

The Wang family. Left to right: Stephanie Hsu plays Joy,  Ke Huy Quan plays Waymond; and Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn. Image source

Sans the Asian-American immigrant plotline, the movie perfectly echoes the conflict that arises when families try to tackle mental health together, and on a fundamental level, try to communicate. In recent years, I’ve urged my parents to watch more Asian-American films with me. I’ve taken them to watch “Crazy Rich Asians” (dir. Jon M. Chu), “The Farewell” (dir. Lulu Wang), and “Tigertail” (dir. Alan Yang). Yet nothing resonated with them- or at least they didn’t want to tell me so. The most conversation I’ve had about any of these films is when my mom lectured me on doing extensive background checks on my future partner. Neither of my parents had much to say about the immigrant experience, nor the cross-cultural conflict between older and younger generations, which were all common themes across these movies.

The Daniels managed to pack the complexity of the immigrant mother-daughter relationship, as well as the heavy themes of nihilism and existentialism into a 140-minute feature. The storytelling, the film references, the cinematography, the movie score… all of these elements were brilliantly weaved together to deliver a whimsical narrative that is sentimental, profound, and simply well-written. I never thought that an everything bagel could describe my soul-sucking, existentialist depression- but there it was, a perfect metaphor for the pain of conscience, rotating on screen in all its deliciousness.

Joy/Jobu Tupaki. Jobu Tupaki is an omnipotent and all-knowing entity who seeks to destroy the multiverse. Image source

After exiting the theater that night, I texted my family group chat and urged my parents to watch EEAAO (as soon as we could find a version with full Chinese subtitles). Still, there is a small part of my heart that aches and worries that my parents will have nothing to say about this film. So, I suppose this is a love letter to my parents. To myself. Through the tears and laughter, accepting the chaos within this movie has allowed me to accept the chaos in my own life and make some sense of it.

Breaking the cycle

As a result of my multicultural upbringing, I’ve faced much cultural conflict with my family. Yet I’ve never felt “too Asian” while growing up- only “too Western.” My mother frequently remarks, “What good does Canada do for my daughter? I’ve raised her Chinese and she still behaves like this? It must be these Western values.”

The film underscores the frustrations of trying to connect with a parent that is not only emotionally unavailable, but also from a different cultural background. Growing up, I was always at odds with my mother; her preferred methods of communication were the silent treatment and plates of fruit. I, on the other hand, just wanted to be heard by her, her’s being the one opinion that I valued the most. My childhood was marked by our cultural conflict, lack of understanding, and inability to compromise, especially when it came to my future.

She has always had my best interest in heart, but had trouble expressing it. But to live and feel that our relationship was conditional on my success, the terms that she had already defined for me, pushed me further away. I could only be so forgiving and understanding towards someone who had continually hurt me under the guise of wanting the best for me. Her actions and words have taught me a lot about integrity and hard work, and I am forever grateful for the resources she’s given me to live my life now, but our conflict contributed to a lot of hardships that ultimately shaped my perspective on family relationships and independence. It became much easier to (pretend to) concede and do things on my own without telling my parents rather than actively share parts of my life with them.

Naturally, my relationship with my mother improved after I had moved out, but I remember feeling the same awkwardness and tension that Joy felt when returning home. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized the burden of expectation from parent to child that carries into the next generation. Our regrets manifest in counterproductive, toxic ways of living and teaching. When I visualize a future where I raise children of my own, I always think to myself, “I won’t raise my kids the same way my mother raised me.” I can’t imagine the amount of times my own mother has thought that to herself while raising me.

We try so hard to define our own success, but unconsciously circle back to our parents’ expectations because they are typically the most consistent figures in our life. In the film, Evelyn pushes her daughter to achieve more than she possibly could, but mirrors the unrealistic expectations and abusive attitudes of her own parents- the same people she ran away from to marry Waymond and pursue the American Dream.

My mother carried the same weight on her shoulders when she immigrated to Canada. I could never fathom that burden myself: the pressure to succeed, especially while bringing your family to a Western environment barely knowing any English. So, I empathize with Evelyn. I’ve similarly grown up facing the pressure of my older, traditional Chinese relatives. I also understand the pressure of wanting to meet a parent’s expectations. My fear of failure and rejection echo my mother’s. 

I have come to forgive her for the emotional abuse during my childhood. Sometimes, I catch myself thinking, “What is the point in trying to communicate with someone who is fundamentally different from me? Even though she’s my mother- it feels like she’s not even trying to understand me.” It is and has always been a constant inner battle to simply try. Even if my mother has good intentions, and clearly wants the best for me, how could she fail to value my feelings about my own upbringing?

The final reconciliation scene between mother and daughter plays out like my own fantasy: Evelyn acknowledges their differences and reassures Joy that, sure, life is meaningless and we are all insignificant pieces of shit; but none of that matters because she still wants to cherish every moment with her daughter. Joy is clearly touched (and at that point in the theater, I was choking on my tears), but asks, “So what?”

Even in light of a heartfelt confession, Joy still feels this burden of expectation- she fails to accept her mother’s love, and thus herself, because her identity growing up is tied to meeting her mother’s expectations. Truly, none of this makes sense- the things that we are working towards ultimately seem meaningless. As Joy cries:

“So what? You’re just gonna ignore everything else? You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than just this? Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense.”

Evelyn reassures her, “Then I will cherish these few specks of time.”

Joy and Evelyn embrace in the parking lot of the laundromat.

Sure, it might have required Evelyn to realize her omnipotence and save the multiverse before empathizing with her daughter, but that is what love is about. The commitment to accept the other person, to work and communicate with them, and share your life. My mother and I unconditionally love each other, but it was only until recently that we had both made significant strides to better understand each other.

My realization of generational trauma and its impacts did not occur until I had moved out from home, and it required an immense amount of courage to be able to take the first step to try to break the cycle and understand where my mother was coming from. Knowing this and taking a step forward has felt like a power in itself, and I have found it incredibly rewarding to have mended our relationship.

Empathy in the face of meaninglessness

I wanted to dedicate an entire section to Waymond (and every version of him), as he delivers an important lesson of empathy. Trauma and hardship can really toughen the heart, but it’s important to keep our fight and compassion, especially when everything feels so meaningless.

People are all we have, and it’s the connections we forge with others that help create meaning in our lives. Waymond and Evelyn’s relationship has taught me to not only find compassionate people who uplift me, but also to be that person for others.

Waymond is introduced as a simple man. In contrast to Evelyn’s tough exterior and seriousness, he is silly. He puts googly eyes on random objects and doesn’t know what’s going on most, if not all, the time. He’s the comedic relief, the dunce, the husband that Evelyn is sometimes ashamed of being around. But don’t underestimate him- he easily delivers one of the best scenes and takeaways of the film.

Ke Huy Quan plays Waymond. Or in this image, Successful Businessman Waymond. Image source

I firstly love that Waymond’s character challenges the film stereotypes of Asian men. He is neither the docile, nerdy man nor the buff martial artist. He is a hero on his own, and he complements Evelyn and Joy in their respective journeys. At one point in the film, Evelyn comes to realize the meaninglessness of life and almost succumbs to the destructive bagel herself.

Compared to Joy and Evelyn, whose growing frustrations are manifesting in a violent path of destruction across the multiverse, he shows his vulnerability (his true power) without aggression. In one of the final fights, Jobu Tupacki summons her “minions” to fight and stall Evelyn in order to destroy the multiverse. She reveals that the everything bagel blackhole is actually made not to destroy the universe, but to finally kill her (and every version of her). Evelyn’s instinct is to aggress and fight everyone to get to Joy, but Waymond appears and begs for everyone to stop fighting despite his confusion about the entire situation.

“All day, I don’t know what the heck is going on- but somehow, it feels like it’s all my fault. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind. Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.”

Waymond’s compassion resonates especially while he expresses his existential crisis. What is the purpose of existence but to search for meaning? And when we can’t find meaning, much less make it, why does it feel like we have failed?

My upbringing has undoubtedly contributed to my (frankly: bleak) perspective of life, but it has never challenged my will. I recognize that my mother’s expectations have influenced what I perceive as success and how I view myself. There have been times in my life when I have felt like there is no point to continue pursuing certain passions because I haven’t seen outstanding results. This struggle has founded my relationship with my mother, and our respective failings to understand each other have really pushed us further apart. Before, I had felt ultimately alone- not even my mother understood me. But we unconditionally love each other, and our mutual efforts to connect have really helped us- helped me.

This entire sequence about empathy intertwines Evelyn’s main universe and an alternate universe where she did not end up marrying Waymond, instead staying in Hong Kong and becoming a professional martial artist and actress. The two reunite at one of her film premieres, and he is revealed to have become a very successful business man in America. In her quest to save her daughter, she accidentally reveals that they did get married in another universe, but she feels ashamed because their life together is not as materially successful: instead of walking the red carpet, they wash red sweaters in a janky laundromat.

He is obviously very confused, but understands that Evelyn carries a lot of shame and regret about her life. Businessman Waymond doesn’t mock her for her delusions. He instead shares that he understands why Evelyn did not choose to stay with him some decades ago.

Waymond’s monologue really shines a light on not only Ke Huy Quan’s acting, but also the brilliance of Waymond’s character. His resilience is founded on his empathy and compassion. He expresses to Evelyn:

“You think I’m weak, don’t you? All of those years ago when we first fell in love, your father would say I was too sweet for my own good. Maybe he was right. You tell me that it’s a cruel world and we’re all just running around in circles. I know that. I’ve been on this earth just as many days as you. When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”

This entire interaction had me in shambles. In those moments, I need my Waymond: a beacon of light, guiding me to be the best possible version of myself, to create meaning for myself- to keep fighting. He reminds Evelyn to have empathy, and to show people more compassion instead of trying to isolate.

In fact, this is the turning point of the film, because Jobu Tupaki’s foot soldiers begin to attack Evelyn. What really seals the deal is Evelyn’s following action sequence where she practices this empathy and “fights” those in her way by helping them achieve true happiness. She looks to Waymond and tells him that she is learning to fight his way… which underscores the conscious and proactive effort that loved ones take to meet in the middle: to share these experiences and learnings and create meaning together. Evelyn breaks the cycle, one act of kindness at a time.

In fact, Evelyn confronts Gong Gong at the laundromat and tells him that she realized her mistake in raising Joy in fear of rejection from her father. She goes further to acknowledge Joy’s shortcomings and introduce Becky as her daughter’s girlfriend. Instead of running from her problems and her trauma “because nothing matters,” Evelyn seeks to reassure and apologize to Joy because she has found meaning in her relationship with her daughter.

Jobu Tupaki’s entire conquest across the multiverse is founded in her desperation to seek a single version of her mother who will understand her pain. It is only until Waymond talks to Evelyn that she is able to reconnect and empathize with her daughter. Each struggle is personal, and at times, may feel unfixable- but not everything needs an immediate solution. Sometimes, we just need reassurance from our loved ones.

Resilience, love, and loss are all meant to be experienced because they really are what make life fulfilling. Compassion is how we carry on. Empathy has personally really helped me work towards breaking the cycle with my mother, and others showing empathy towards me have reminded me of how fulfilling life is. It’s the moments I’ve shared with my loved ones that have reminded me about the importance of creating meaning for myself and cherishing those “specks of time” that do make sense.

To conclude, this entire sequence is beautiful: the references to Wong Kar-Wai, the dialogue, the heaviness in the air of “what could’ve been.” The hopelessness that Evelyn feels.

Watching this film is my catharsis.

I want a love that spans the multiverse. In the most romantic sense, I mean self-love. And I think I’ve really found love in my friends and my family. In myself. To an extent, nihilism has allowed me to truly cherish what I find to be meaningful. I hope that every other version of myself in the multiverse is practicing the same compassion.

I carry that same hope that my mother will come to understand my feelings, too- or at least hold my hand and tell me that it will be okay.

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