It isn’t every day the Chinese community – or Asians for that matter – see their stories writ large in Hollywood. You have The Joy Luck Club in 1993 and, more than 20 years later, Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi, Turning Red, The Farewell and Minari. All great films. More recently, Everything Everywhere All at Once – by the Daniels duo, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – was released in the US to critical acclaim, but the strength herein lies not in the blockbuster treatment Asian stories have recently benefited from but in what it says about the Chinese immigrant experience and philosophies from far afield.
Beyond the kaleidoscope of multiverse madness, this film distils east Asian philosophies like no other before it. While it may seem that the great stories of Asian immigrant families build on the cornerstone of intergenerational trauma, its heart of Buddhist and Daoist thought is what makes Everything Everywhere truly great.
The bagel and the googly eye are two major symbols of this film. Not only is it a surprisingly apt and humorous take on yin and yang, but in the same stroke it explores concepts central to Buddhist philosophy. To boil down more than 2,000 years of Buddhist discourse – it is thought that all things exist only through our perception of said things. Therefore, they are without inherent meaning. They’re empty. This is expressed in the film’s multiverses. When its characters gain the power to manifest all the potentialities of their lives, they quickly realize that when every phenomenon and concept you can think of are smooshed together, it all becomes a smorgasbord of meaningless nothingness – on top of a bagel. It loses inherent value.
This is where the bagel’s antithesis – the googly eye – comes in. It says that in the universe of meaningless emptiness there is value, joy and love where we choose to create it. Through the googly-eyed lens, we gain the power to control our infinite emptiness. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the dorky husband of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), reminds her through simple kindness that there is value where you want to create it and meaning where you choose to see it. In Buddhist thought, it’s our compassion that grounds us – makes us human – and emptiness isn’t the mark of nihilism and despair but an opportunity to leave behind the bad and cherish the good. At least, in very simple terms that is what Buddhism aims for.
Unfortunately, these points are often missed by a western audience and even the near wall to wall positive coverage of this film barely touches on its philosophical significance.
In a roundabout way, it’s wholly emblematic of Hollywood’s dismissiveness of Asian achievements and stories. One of the film’s stars, James Hong, who plays a grandfather referred to only as Gong Gong, is a veteran of Hollywood, with more than 650 acting credits under his belt. But he only received his Hollywood Walk of Fame star this year after a GoFundMe campaign launched by fellow Asian-American actor Daniel Dae Kim.
Actually, you might recognize another one of the film’s stars, Ke Huy Quan, if he were 30 years younger. In the 1980s, Quan was best known for being Indiana Jones’s sidekick Short Round and then went on to play Data in The Goonies. The former child actor told People that he was “waiting for the phone to ring” but it never did. With few roles for Asian actors at the time, I have decided to step away from acting. It was only after watching Crazy Rich Asians that he realized he wanted to get back in the game.
The overt examples of Asians getting short shrift in the media aren’t hard to find, whether it be Marlon Brando or Mickey Rooney in yellow-face or Kunal Nayyar being the butt of many ethnic jokes in The Big Bang Theory. But it’s the more subtle examples that shortchange Asian excellence when it’s at its highest. The Farewell and Minari are victims of these, having been designated foreign-language films despite being produced and cast mostly in America. And going back to the black-and-white era, many a role was denied Anna May Wong due to the racial laws of the time.
Beyond being entertainment, or even allowing us an insight into the psyches of millions of people across the globe, Asian immigrant stories are valuable if you engage with them. As Asian hate crime rises in the United States and tensions flare between China and Australia, understanding the Asian psyche has never been more important. And with all things fraught with uncertainty in this world, it helps to broaden our philosophical appetite if we appreciate the people and things around us in a different light.