…and in the multiverse Michelle Yeoh is everything!…
Everywhere you look now it seems that we have entered a multiverse. That ‘through the looking glass’ moment where things aren’t quite what you were expecting. Where every decision could lead to an infinite number of variations, each trailing in various directions of what could have been. For some, though, that might not be the case. It could depend on which universe you are reading this in.
Imagine for a moment a parallel universe where Michelle Yeoh was able to capitalise on her appearance alongside James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies to propel her career into superstar status in US and Western productions. Ahead of Jackie Chan’s (albeit at least third attempt) with Rush Hour, Jet Li with Lethal Weapon 4 and Chow Fun-fat in The Replacement Killers.
Instead her career treaded water, perhaps losing ground in the diminishing Hong Kong film scene, with likeable if flawed English language productions like The Touch, but hardly gaining much in terms of international work thanks to problematic casting such as Memoirs of a Geisha. There were solid roles that followed, some leading, but none that fulfilled that potential. Until, that is, Crazy Rich Asians and Star Trek: Discovery came along. In the former, she played the world’s worst mother-in-law where didn’t just steal her scenes, but the whole film. In the latter, her character – a parallel universe version of it no less – played to her action roots, proving popular enough to propose a spin-off, though still currently undeveloped. Suddenly she became one of the busiest actors, with multiple productions including various upcoming Avatar sequels and a miniseries spinoff from The Witcher franchise to her name. Some universes take longer than others to reach their inevitable destination.
And now here we are, with audiences hardly batting an eyelid as Yeoh takes centre stage in a film no less spectacular than the latest Marvel, where the ‘multiverse’ concept has also taken the limelight. (Another universe where she’s been enveloped. Twice.) As the so-called “Daniels”, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, write and direct what has become one of the talked about films of the year, premiering at South by Southwest and released in the US shortly afterwards, finally making it to a UK release. (Perhaps in one of these universes we wouldn’t have had to wait so long.)
Here we find Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang, owner of a struggling laundromat with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and father ‘Gong Gong’ (veteran actor James Hong, Blade Runner, Chinatown). Desperately trying to keep their business above water presenting their expenses to IRS investigator Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). In this humdrum reality, evading serious tax fines seems unlikely, but then the multiverse opens up…
Evelyn, it seems, is the multiverse’s only chance to battle a great multidimensional evil known as Jobu Tupaki, seemingly intent on destroying all life with her ‘everything bagel’. She must access the abilities of various other versions of herself that took very different paths. But will it be enough?
From the outset, the Daniels’ vision of the film was set to plugin to the martial arts background of their lead star. In another parallel universe they might have pushed ahead with their original choice, Jackie Chan. A decision that would have been disastrous, and not just for losing the powerful mother-daughter dynamic at the core of the film. There’s a sense here that the more that is thrown at Yeoh, the more she excels. It’s hard to think of a more versatile actress, especially one that could handle hot dog fingers. Once they’d switched to a female protagonist though, it seems there could only be one person for the job. In another of those universes, they’d have stuck to actually naming her character ‘Michelle’. Notably one of the alternate Evelyn’s even seems rather familiar: a martial arts star who went on to be movie star. (Of course, if we were really going to be autobiographical, she might have studied ballet and been a Miss World contestant first, but there you go…)
That experience comes into play, as this is many parts action, well choreographed in an imaginative, roller coaster ride of fight sequences paying debt to the sillier side of Hong Kong martial arts films. Ke Huy Quan’s experience as an action choreographer comes into play splendidly too. For many of us of a certain age though, we’ll still remember him fondly for his roles in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. It’s somewhat hilarious, though, when his character refers to Evelyn being the same age. Yes. You can get away with that if you look like Michelle Yeoh. That’s the one place the multiverses collide.
There are various references throughout, both fleeting and substantial. A divergent evolutionally track gives us Kubrick’s 2001. As a parallel version turns Gong Gong from dotty grandpa to cunning opponent, there’s more than a nod to his role in Big Trouble in Little China (though some of us might prefer his performance that Seinfeld episode). A discussion between an Evelyn and Waymond who never got together turns into a sweet, green-lit homage to Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, complete with trademark stuttering slow motion. And there’s a bizarre reference to Ratatouille.
As well as Yeoh and Quan, the main cast are fantastic. Jamie Lee Curtis takes particular glee in her unglamorous role, obviously relishing every moment. In another universe, Awkwafina would have taken Stephanie Hsu’s part as Joy. Even avoiding the fact she and Yeoh shared time together on screen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it feels like Hsu was a better choice for the film.
Those aware of the Daniels’ previous work will be aware of their wacky sensibilities. Visually and tonally this shares DNA with early work as music video directors such as Turn Down for What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon. Their debut feature Swiss Army Man came across – if you were to be a little unfair – as a one-gag film: what if we had a farty Harry Potter corpse? That permeates this film, as a multiverse that refuses to be taken seriously. Abilities from parallel universes are accessed through the most ridiculous means, from shoes on the wrong feet, through paper cuts, to even eating ancient chewing gum from beneath a desk. It seems anything can connect to an alternative you, somewhere.
In a parallel universe, the Daniels might not have been as worried that others might get to the multiverse before them. But to be fair, these ideas had been around for a while. Accessing other’s abilities feels much like the Wachowskis’ Sense8. Parallel universe martial arts can’t help but bring to mind James Wong’s The One, starring Jet Li, which Quan actually worked on as fight choreographer under action directing legend Corey Yuen.
At its heart, Everything Everywhere All At Once explores both the ‘what ifs’ that our lives could have been, and paths defined for us by our relationships with parents (with more than a little Larkin). It plays well into previous A24 distributed films depicting the Asian American experience, like The Farewell and Minari, reclaiming it from the somewhat lacklustre and templated Shang Chi. But however visually amazing the film looks, as cinematographer Larkin Seiple switches from the mundane to fantastical (especially in IMAX), there’s something frustrating about being offered a world of infinite possibilities and showing only a handful. Towards the end we flash past tens of multiple Evelyn’s. It would be interesting to freeze frame through them all to see exactly how far the Daniels imagination goes. Instead, a little too running time is taken up with the sentimental family drama we’ve seen before. And a sense that it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is. But even in this universe that’s still fun.