When Everything Everywhere All at Once released earlier this year, many Asians in diaspora viewed the film’s success as a major win for Asian representation. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (‘the Daniels’), the maximalist comedy-drama received critical acclaim for its unique take on the multiverse narrative. Many Asian viewers praised the film for its comedic yet heartfelt portrayal of generational conflicts between Asians and their migrant parents. However, the hype has done little to sway a vocal minority who express more pressing opinions about ‘Everything Everywhere’. Despite the film harnessing a strong Asian American voice, a small percentage of Asian viewers voice equally strong critiques – including myself.
In recent decades, Asian-centred narratives have gradually taken over American cinema, with works like The Farewell and Minari setting the bar for future Asian filmmakers. Although these films both empower and affirm their largely diasporic audience, it’s imperative to question how they represent identity and culture, and who really consumes these narratives. Asian reviewers on LetterboxD, a platform dedicated to reviewing and logging films, have vented frustration with Everything Everywhere’s portrayals of Asian identity.
Their reviews have opened certain enquiries into Western spectatorship. “[I’m] starting to think that Asian Americans have been so far removed from their own culture,” reads one review, “it is literally impossible for them to see themselves outside of … stereotypes defined by the West.”
“Beautiful adventures on the outside; nothing else on the inside,” writes another. “Levels of maximal[ism] activate the sometimes funny bone but also the tiring sense of being Asian that remains on the surface.”
LetterboxD reviewer SupremeLemon wrote a critical half-star review detailing the many racial stereotypes presented in Everything Everywhere, from the ‘closed-minded elderly patriarch,’ tiger mums, and martial arts scenes, to the ‘confused but rebellious [first] generation kid … who embraces the rebellious Asian Baby Girl aesthetic.’
He further examines the tokenised representation of Asians in a later paragraph. “I see Asian people and Asian culture,” he explains, “but Asianness is merely consecrated and desecrated as ornamental artifice or aesthetic objects that epitomise the congealment of commodification … this Asianness is primarily designed to appeal to a non-Asian (white) audience or boba liberals who seek validation through non-Asian (white) approval.”
The commodification of Asian identities is what concerns me as an Asian Australian viewer. If Everything Everywhere dealt with white families instead, would this film achieve the same successes it had now?
This tokenisation in Everything Everywhere prevents us from interrogating the distinctions between Asian diaspora and homeland. The Daniels leave no room for examining the complexities of Chinese identity and culture. More broadly speaking, they refuse to understand the nuances of Eastern collectivism that sit at the crux of many Asian families. While Asian families are commonly associated with strict parenting and conservative traditions, we also tend to overlook their more positive values: collective love languages, devotion to selflessness, and generational knowledge, to name a few. An ideal world would imagine diasporic Asians as committed to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their culture, the same way many Asian parents recognise Western liberalism as a double-edged sword.
These traits of Eastern collectivism remain virtually unacknowledged in Everything Everywhere. Instead, the Daniels overlook these enquiries and offer nihilism as a quick-fix solution. By the third act, the message of “nothing matters, just be kind” simply discourages this cultural scrutiny, forcing us to accept “kindness” as a perfect, end-all cure to tiger mums, homophobic relatives, and generational trauma. It’s a sitcom happy ending that co-opts the premise of a millennial-targeted self-help book.
Consequently, this creates a pan-Asian narrative that is supposedly emblematic of diasporic Asians. In reality, generational conflicts entail multiple solutions for Asians of different backgrounds. What does a “happy ending” look like for a Filipino family in Australia? Is it any different for Korean Canadians or Japanese Americans? Solutions to these complicated issues are far from simple, and involve much more than a basic, one-size-fits-all life lesson.
While Asian viewers can relate to the family conflicts found in Everything Everywhere, I also fear that these types of films perpetuate another stereotype – that all Asian families are dysfunctional, toxic, and close-minded. Nobody should have to accept that growing up with a healthy Asian family is near impossible. The last thing I want is for Asian audiences to antagonise their migrant parents, the same way Jobu Tupaki resents Evelyn across the multiverse.
Although my criticism for Everything Everywhere is a hill I will die on, I often forget that I have friends who connect with this film. I know Asian friends who are queer and struggle with conservative families; friends who are deeply connected to their culture and homeland; friends who see Asian identity beyond its tokenism. These friends of mine loved this film. So, is it right for me to tell them that they shouldn’t love this work? That it’s wrong for them to identify with Asian stereotypes?
Of course, it’s never right to rob people of their validation. Respect is always principle in any discourse – I find it more productive to be critical than cynical. I’m grateful for those who’ve listened to me criticise with an open mind, even if most discussions end with an agree-to-disagree resolution. And as a non-Chinese Asian, listening to Chinese viewers who both loved and hated the film not only taught me compassion towards different perspectives, but also to take accountability for my own opinions.
Unfortunately, there’s an assumption that Asian viewers who critique these kinds of films are either ungrateful for representation or turning their backs on other Asians. This is never the case. The truth is we shouldn’t take these representations for granted and assume that every Asian-centred narrative is a win for everyone. Our identities shouldn’t have to be reduced to recycled memes on Subtle Asian Traits, daily rewatches of Crazy Rich Asians, and hauling merchandise from 88Rising. There’s more to us than the sugary sweet pearls that render us palatable to the Western gaze.
As Asians in diaspora, we deserve stories that reflect authentic experiences over contrived stereotypes. It’s time that we aim for the stars and call for complexity, not commodity.