“You take the stereotypes of kung fu movies, or fanny packs, or Asian laundromats…all of those stereotypes were true to me growing up. That was my life. My grandfather owned a laundromat. My dad wore a fanny pack. I took kung fu lessons. It’s really weird to grow up in a time where people are kind of rolling their eyes at my life. All of those things became symbols of our oppression.”
In conversation with PopMatters, director Daniel Kwan, alongside co-director Daniel Scheinert, delves into the personal touches of their latest film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a mind-bending, sci-fi family drama centering on a middle-aged, Asian laundromat owner named Evelyn, played by the inimitable Michelle Yeoh. The directing duo, commonly referred to as simply “Daniels”, aim to subvert and shatter Asian American tropes and stereotypes to get to the bedrock of the characters as people.
“A large portion of the Chinese community came here and owned laundromats,” says Kwan. “We should not be ashamed of that. Instead, we should show the depth and complexity of it. We’re trying to blast through each of those stereotypes, which I actually really love.”
In the film, Evelyn, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quran), and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) live in an apartment connected to the laundromat they run. They lead a seemingly mundane life, burdened by piles of tax forms and underlying familial issues. Evelyn loves Waymond but finds him to be somewhat weak and banal. And her relationship with Joy is fraught at best—they can’t see eye-to-eye on most things, including Joy’s partner, Becky (Tallie Medel).
Evelyn’s life is quite literally fractured when a Waymond from another universe drags her into a multiversal war that, for some reason, hinges on her involvement. There are countless Evelyns in the multiverse—some are rich and famous, some are kung fu experts—so what makes the laundromat owner so special? As her story unfolds, the truth comes to light in a strange and spectacular fashion.
The film’s scale is at once massive and intimate, which speaks to Daniels’ style of filmmaking. Evelyn’s journey spans multiple realities, but her story is at its core about her love for her family and the weight of her presence in their lives. To encompass this duality of scale, the directors took an almost scientific approach.
“I think all storytelling combines the universal with the personal,” Kwan explains. “It’s about the smallest thing and the biggest thing. But today, the ‘biggest thing’ has grown beyond what our brains can imagine because of the internet. We’re post-post-post globalization, and our stories haven’t caught up.
“If we’re going to continue this legacy of storytellers combining the universal and the personal, the universal has to be massive, and the personal has to be nuanced and tiny. Just like how the theory of everything is trying to reconcile quantum physics with traditional physics, we’re trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to do this impossible thing of combining it all so that the movie holds together and feels honest.”
Everything Everywhere All at Once has a big-and-small scale cinematically as well, with the concept of the multiverse looking large over intimate scenes between handfuls of characters. According to Scheinert, the idea to convey the story’s grander elements in unconventional ways was built into the film’s DNA.
“It was part of the pitch, how we’d somehow pull off the sci-fi action movie without the Hollywood blockbuster budget,” Scheinert recalls. “It was kind of a gift because we love intimate scenes. Our favorite fight scenes in movies are a lot of times, one-on-ones. There aren’t a hundred guys with a hundred guns. We thought we don’t need that. We create scale by juxtaposing things, but we never have to use 300 extras.”
The sobering reality that anti-Asian sentiments and violence are growing in America gives a cultural weight to Everything Everywhere All At Once that the filmmakers didn’t intend for initially but now fully embrace nonetheless.
“This is a really scary time for the Asian community. Every time you read one of those articles or see a video, you can’t help but think of family, or people you know or went to church with,” says Kwan. “I don’t know why these things happen, but it seems like this icon Michelle Yeoh getting to show her full complexity and her full range of talent and vulnerability…hopefully it can become this thing where, when people see this character of Evelyn, they’ll see in her some lady in Chinatown, or someone like that, and see the multitudes contained within them.”
While Kwan hadn’t foreseen the rash of anti-Asian hate coming when Daniels wrote and subsequently shot Everything Everywhere All At Once, he had always intended for the story to pay tribute to the people who fought and sacrificed to give him the life he has: his parents.
“In some ways, the movie is a love letter to my parents,” Kwan explains. “I don’t think I’ve fully encapsulated who they are yet, but this is the tip of the iceberg of how I want to remember them with my work. I’m so grateful to have the main character be the mother and not the daughter. It forced me to remember what my parents had to go through to bring me to where I am now. I’m so excited for people to see people like my mom in this beautiful form.”