Part 1: Everything
“Now, you may only see a pile of receipts, but I see a story. I can see where this story is going. And it does not look good. It. Does. Not. Look. Good.” – Deirdre Beaubeirdra in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
The story starts with a dream. In Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, the dreamers in question are Evelyn Quan and Waymond Wang, star-crossed lovers who turn their backs on their families in China to carve their own path in America. And, they do make their own way, just not in the way they intended; a failing laundromat, an insurmountable debt, a crumbling marriage, a distant daughter, and a disappointed father. Although their story is a work of fiction, it closely resembles the reality of many Asian immigrants in the West. However, we never got to witness this nuanced portrayal of Asian Americans in Western cinema until quite recently.
Let’s rewind 30 years back in time to visit the ultimate ancestor of all-Asian-cast movies, Flower Drum Song. Deemed the first major Hollywood film of its kind, the film shook the world to its core in 1961 with the novelty of its cast. However, some Asian-Americans complained about the stereotypical script – that it seemed as if it was ‘a tourist’s view of Chinatown’ – and the use of Japanese-American actors in place of Chinese-American actors.
Most 20th-century and early 21st-century films and television reduced Asians to caricatures that perpetuated harmful stereotypes and relegated them to supporting roles. It appeared that Asian kids were only capable of being highly-ambitious nerds with thick glasses who always had their noses in their books whilst their overly-strict parents watched their every move over their shoulders. A manifestation of this trope can be found in the 2000s sitcom Gilmore Girls, which depicted Lane Kim as the stereotypical ‘good-girl’ and her mother as the ‘tiger-mom’.
Of course, plenty of other tropes were commonplace back then such as the ‘dragon lady’ trope which tended to fetishise Asian women by painting them as cunning and seductive. Asian men weren’t exempt from this either, as most of them only got to play one-dimensional characters whose only purpose in life was to practise martial arts, with The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi being a prime example of this trope.
But, that’s not even the worst part! Hollywood has been guilty of co-opting Asian culture and transposing their unique experiences onto white actors in a practice known as whitewashing. For example, the 2017 remake of the beloved Japanese manga, Ghost in the Shell cast none other than blonde bombshell Scarlett Johansson as the dark-haired Motoko Kusanagi. And, as talented as she is, no amount of black hair dye and GGI can justify the casting choice that was motivated by the – now disproven – presumption that an Asian cast is not palatable to a Western audience.
Another notable case of whitewashing can be found in 2005’s Batman Begins, with the antagonist Ra’s al Ghul being portrayed by white actor Liam Neeson when the character is clearly depicted in both the movie and original comic as a person of East Asian descent.
But, the worst offender of stereotyping and whitewashing Asian characters is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of the Japanese character – complete with yellowface, a strong accent, thick glasses, and Oriental outfits – was racist even for its time and solidified the Asian American as undignified and unintelligent as opposed to the classy and cultivated White American.
Yup, these were definitely the dark ages for Asian representation in Hollywood.
Roll the Credits
Part 2: Everywhere
“Every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment. Don’t let anything distract you from it.” – Waymond Wang in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
The Asian diaspora has spread across the globe, constituting more than half of the total population. Yet, a recent study found that across 1,300 of the highest-grossing Hollywood films between 2007 and 2019, only 5.9% of speaking characters were of Asian descent and only 3.4% of the films had an Asian lead or co-lead. Although one might argue that these numbers are not too bad considering the fact that the Asian population in the US also comprises 5.9% of its total population, we cannot ignore the fact that Hollywood has transcended the borders of its country of origin and has worldwide reach. As the epicentre of filmmaking, it is imperative that Asians are adequately represented in Hollywood, not only for the sake of Asian Americans but for all Asians.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that good representation is far better than no or bad representation. Although Asian actors are still not on the same playing field as their White counterparts in terms of opportunities and pay, they are no longer relegated to the role of the sidekick anymore. And, this is partly due to the critical acclaim and commercial success of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, which earned a profit of over $238 million. The trailblazer featured an all-Asian cast – the first to do so since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club – and set the stage for films like Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Farewell. Crazy Rich Asians was also lauded for embracing traditionally White archetypes such as the fish-out-of-water romantic lead and the dashingly handsome love interest as well as putting its own spin on stereotypical Asian characters such as the disapproving mother and dutiful son.
Thanks to greater Asian representation behind the scenes, we now get to hear Asian stories straight from the horse’s mouth. For instance, both Never Have I Ever and The Sex Lives of College Girls feature Indian American characters that serve as a semi-self-insert for writer Mindy Kaling. Although her experience may not be the same as other Asians or Asian Americans, it is refreshing to see complex Asian characters whose stories aren’t centred around their culture. Instead, their ethnicity is just one of the many shades on their canvas, to be given equal importance as other aspects of their lives such as romantic or platonic relationships.
Moreover, directors like Nomadland and Marvel’s Eternals’ Chloé Zhao have shown that Asians aren’t limited to focusing the lens on just Asian stories but can weave their magic on any kind of film or show.
Circling back to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’s Evelyn and Waymond; their experiences may not have been represented on the big – or small – screen when they first moved to America in pursuit of the American dream. But now, all they’d have to do is turn the TV on and they’ll find films like 2022’s Minari and shows such as Kim’s Convenience (2016 – 2021) which perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to be an immigrant in a Western country.
Part 3: All at Once
“The universe is so much bigger than you realise” – Waymond Wang in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
It’s been a harrowing journey. We’ve followed Asia’s journey in Hollywood everywhere and seen everything it has to offer. Now, it is finally time to reap the rewards and bask in the glory of our success. And, who is better suited for the job than the groundbreaking Everything, Everywhere, All at Once? Malaysia’s very own Michelle Yeoh – who has played second fiddle to male Asian actors or White actors throughout her career which spans Hong Kong actions films like Supercop (1992) and Hollywood blockbusters such as James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) – is finally given full reign to flex her acting chops as the unlikely hero, Evelyn Quan in this film.
After being trapped in the ‘Mother to the Main Character’ cage for so long, Yeoh spreads her wings and kicks some ass whilst nailing the emotional beats and funny lines. It’s no wonder she’s a shoo-in for the Oscar! Former child actor Ke Huy Quan and Shang Qi’s Stephanie Hsu who star alongside Yeoh as Waymond and Joy Wang are no slouches either, having been nominated for Oscars themselves. In fact, Ke Huy Quan’s comeback was inspired by none other than Crazy Rich Asians, as the actor didn’t want to miss out on all the great opportunities that Asian actors now had.
Nevertheless, the film is more than just a vehicle for Asian representation, but a love letter to cinema as a whole that couldn’t have arrived at a more suitable time in history; offering hope and clarity in a time where existentialism and nihilism cast a shadow on our lives.
And, unlike Crazy Rich Asians, this kaleidoscope of a film isn’t afraid to experiment with multiple genres or subvert the audience’s expectations, which sets it apart from Asian-centric films of the past. The success of this film despite a small budget and minimal advertising also shows that audience perception in the West has changed; powerful storytelling now comes before skin tone.
Yet, as we ‘just stand here and take it all in’ like Michelle Yeoh on the night she won the famed and fabled Golden Globe award, we can’t let the 24-karat aureate trophy blind us from the fact that the awards frenzy for the film may be too good to be true. Considering the fact that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) was exposed for its unethical behaviour and lack of racial diversity in 2021, resulting in the cancellation of the live telecast of the Golden Globes ceremony, it wouldn’t be a far cry to assume that the awards thrown at the film are partially linked to the association’s efforts to clean up its image. The same goes for the Academy Awards which received flack for its lack of representation, with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, trending for some time. Of course, this is only speculation as the film deserves all the praise it’s getting, and Hollywood may have finally woken up from its racist past.
So, maybe we shouldn’t place so much importance on the golden statues. After all, even in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’s Kung Fu Universe where Evelyn becomes a famous actress and Waymond becomes a successful businessman, they’d give it all up to do laundry and taxes in another universe, as long as they could be together. In our universe, I’m sure we’d give up all the awards as long as we can see an accurate representation of ourselves on screen. And, although we still have a long way to go when it comes to Asian representation, right now we’re really lucky to be living in a universe where Everything, Everywhere, All at Once exists.
Written by: Ryan and Priyanka
Edited by: Poorani