The first time I saw 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' was at a special early screening on a day full of twos: February 22, 2022. “I won’t tell you what this movie is about yet,” the publicist said when he invited me to the preview, because he wanted me to come into the movie without expectations, to see what my reactions were after I’d watched it cold.
At the time, I really didn’t know what to expect: This was an indie film by the guys who made that movie with Harry Potter. It was going to be weird and probably brilliant and highly uncomfortable. And yet, it starred the queen, Michelle Yeoh, and marked the return to the silver screen of Ke Huy Quan, the hero of my awkward childhood, who’d become the most famous Asian American kid ever as Short Round in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' and as Data in 'The Goonies', and then disappeared.
I braced myself for whatever was going to happen, hoping it would be good, or at least not be bad. And then, two hours and 19 minutes later, after wiping away tears, I was on my feet applauding. At a press screening!
I’d never done that before, not at any sneak previews of the slew of other heart-racing cinematic experiences Asian America has been blessed with over the past five years. Not at the private sneak peek of 'Crazy Rich Asians', which crashed the Hollywood gates and showed the studios that the world would watch a screen full of Asians. Not at the preview of 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings', which unveiled our first-ever big-screen blockbuster Asian American superhero. Not at the packed early screenings for 'The Farewell' or 'Minari', or 'Turning Red' or 'Raya and the Last Dragon'.
Each of those films felt like an explosive release of talent and passion, after a century in which people who looked like me often didn’t even get to play people who looked like me — even now, more White actresses have won Oscars for playing Asians than East Asian actresses have been nominated for the Academy Award for best actress — and when they did, usually played second banana, second fiddle or second waiter from the left.
'Everything Everywhere All at Once' was an explosion of talent and passion, too, but different. It felt personal, intimate and almost invasive, like a handwritten message made out to me, tied to a rock and thrown through my childhood bedroom window. It pushed me into places that until very recently I’d chosen not to explore — my complicated relationship with my mom, the growing disability of my dad; what it feels like to jolt awake in the middle of life and look back at missed opportunities, paths untraveled, while looking ahead into chaos, uncertainty and looming potential for loss and heartbreak. And yet, it ended on a note of hope and possibility, and the gently wonderful recognition that simply hanging on and surviving together is also a love language.
Still, as deep an impact as the movie had on me, I didn’t foresee its blockbuster success. It was too strange, I thought; too different, obscure and absurd. Yes, it made perfect sense to me — but I’m a freak. And while I knew many strange, different, obscure and absurd stories were out there in the burgeoning canon of Asian American indie film, they’ve traditionally been treated to festival showcases and critical golf-claps, then ushered out into the rubber room of history. They didn’t get major releases. They didn’t bank big box office. And they didn’t get nominated for — much less win — Academy Awards.
There was unquestionably a learned helplessness at the bottom of my doubt that “Everything Everywhere” would do anything anywhere — a predisposition to assume that, when it comes to recognition by the so-called mainstream, Asian Americans would always be next and never now: second class, second string, always standing second in line just as the queue is cut off. Coming close but never winning creates its own muscle memory. After a lifetime of honorable mentions, you begin to reflexively offer up a frozen smile, turn to your left and applaud the actual winners before they’re announced.
So I initially found the critical and commercial ascent of 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' puzzling. Just how many other freaks were out there? Was it possible that millions of other people were having the same one-on-one come-to-Jobu personal relationship with this movie that I was? Could this movie somehow be lifted up on the shoulders of a mob of weirdos and carried into cinematic Valhalla?
The movie that no one could possibly have expected has already had success that no one could possibly have predicted. Now, it’s valourising Yeoh’s long and fabled career (which, full disclosure: she touches on in the foreword she wrote for my forthcoming book, 'The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America'), vindicating Ke Huy Quan’s long-awaited comeback, and celebrating the arrival of the dual Daniels, Kwan and Scheinert, into the first ranks of visionary directors.
And for all us weird Asians, used to second-guessing whether our stories deserve to be heard, it represents a second chance.