In the last two years, I have written scripts for five short films, along with a full-length feature screenplay and a pilot episode for a horror rom-com. None of those stories featured an Asian protagonist. Actually, none of them have an Asian character at all.
As I sit here with a tab open with my second feature screenplay, I noticed the same thing – the characters are all white brunette people. It’s a question I have asked myself time and time again: I’m an Asian American, so shouldn’t I be making movies about Asian people, about the Asian American experience, starring Asian actors?
Words like “diversity” and “representation” have always been tricky and complicated. For one, I relate to countless other Asian Americans who find themselves stuck in a limbo, not belonging to one community or the other. Despite growing up in a privileged little city full of Asian people and retired wealthy white people, I can still sense every once in a while that I’m looked at differently. That sentiment, as you would guess, only worsens when I follow social media and read what’s in the news. Then I walk around back in Taiwan, where my parents are from, and everything seems fine, comfortable even. Then I open my mouth, and that funny feeling comes back. “We are Chinese,” my parents would say. “You are American. A westerner,” my grandparents would counter. Maybe that created a habit, and that habit grew to self-limitation and internal racism, and that shaped into stories that capture my experience, but the characters have a different face. Maybe I just accept whatever category or label because it helps me make sense of the world I’m living in.
But making sense of the world is entirely different from feeling like I belong here, and with that comes a long, complicated journey of seeing how people who look like me are portrayed in movies, a medium that I fell in love with ever since I could read.
There’s never really just one thing that started it all, but one “inciting incident” to this story that I especially remember is when news broke out of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the lead protagonist of the US remake of Ghost in the Shell. Though the controversy of white-washing has always been an issue in Hollywood productions, this one in particular made such an impact among moviegoers, Asian American viewers, and native Japanese viewers – look no further than the hateful comments, trolls, and memes (that are admittedly very funny) directed towards Johansson, where people are still making the same joke of her playing an Asian character.
Meanwhile, I remember where I was and how I felt when I read the news: I was unbelievably excited, ecstatic even. Seeing an anime film like Ghost in the Shell “represented” with a Hollywood A-List star like Scarlett Johansson is an incredible thing to happen for that IP. Some of my most anime-obsessed friends have not even heard of Ghost in the Shell until the remake was announced (an absurd and hilarious fact that I’d argue should strip them of their “anime license” but that’s another topic).
With a big name like that attached, more people will hear about the original film and see it. To me, THAT was the most important thing. It’s not taking attention away from the original voice. Rather, it’s giving the original voice more space to be heard.
This goes back to the trickiness of representation. Of course, what I described is not actually representation. Really, the word “exposure” should be included in that conversation. Maybe because people who look like me are typically not on the big screen, I have become used to taking my personal experiences and grafting them into people who typically are. And I didn’t mind that because it lets audiences have a chance to understand where I’m coming from.
And so I remember not knowing how to feel when Crazy Rich Asians was about to come out. The marketing and PR positioning was clear from Day 1 – it’s a massive blockbuster with an all-Asian cast, something that we’ve never seen before. Well, that messaging worked for a lot of people, myself included. The last time a large production featured a mostly Asian cast was in The Joy Luck Club in 1993. I was born the year after that.
Then the movie came out, and it was a movie I passionately recommended to everyone at the time, not because they should support the movie for its all-Asian cast (that was a nice-to-have) but because it was actually a good romantic comedy. It was well written, well acted, and it tugged at my heartstrings like many classic rom-coms would. It just happened to also have an all-Asian cast. Many filmmakers, journalists, outlets really started to use words like “representation” and “inclusion” during this time. Frankly, I didn’t have the time – or maybe the luxury – to make sense of what all that meant.
But then more films with “Asian American representation” were released, and each one really started to prod at me and touch my heart in ways I didn’t expect.
The Farewell made me see my grandmother on the big screen. She has literally the same sense of humor as Nai Nai (eh, mine could be a bit more rude). But her straightforward comments about body shape, butt size, nose size, all of that nonsense is a hundred percent accurate, and I know it’s all spoken out of love and attention. She also cries the exact same way when she calls the taxi for us and we say our goodbyes and return to the United States.
Disney’s Mulan remake made me feel a pressure I’ve never felt before for an upcoming release. I wanted the film to do well and be well-received. I worried about “us” not having another chance at making a movie this big and expensive.
Shang-Chi made me relate to Shang-Chi and Katy’s lifestyles working as parking valets. They’re happy and doing fine and are not expecting anything more, which really spoke to how I live and carry myself every day. There’s that behavior. I wouldn’t call it “surviving,” but it’d be “getting by” and “doing fine.” No need to notice me, I’m just doing my thing. I won’t bother you, so don’t bother me. Of course, I am not speaking for all Asian Americans. I can’t ever speak for all Asian Americans, but I can say this is how it is for me on a daily basis. I’m not upset or mad about it, it’s just the way it is. It’s my norm. But to see Marvel characters act like that on the big screen, it felt comforting.
And then… may I remind you… this was during the period where I read a lot of news and incidents about how people who look like me were attacked and assaulted in public spaces… all while we were isolated and bunkered in our homes, trying to stay sane and keep on trudging forward.
With that in mind, 2022 has been a trifecta of emotions running in circles about what it means and how it feels to be an Asian American.
After Yang made me question just how Chinese I am, if at all. I could recite tons of films and elements of pop culture that are Chinese, but I was born in the United States and never had a life outside of the country. Combine that with Kogonada’s beautiful exploration about absence of space when someone is gone, and it probes that existential side of me.
Turning Red nailed the chemistry in an Asian family. The conflict doesn’t come from Mei’s proactive desire to rebel. Rather, it is blame and shame that Mei puts on herself. Recall the scene where Mei has fantasies about the boy clerk at the convenience store and draws pictures of him as a mermaid, only to result in Ming embarrassing her in front of everybody at the store. Notice that Mei, in the aftermath, never expressed anger or frustration at her mother. Instead, she yells at herself for drawing those horrible pictures in the first place.
Though Ming is definitely (and thankfully) more exaggerated than my real mother is, that sense of pressure is very real as an Asian American child. Is it fear? I can’t say it is. Maybe it’s a self-appointed responsibility. I’m aware of how lucky I am and how comfortable of a lifestyle I’m having with my family, so I develop a natural desire to maintain the status quo and keep everyone happy. Anything that could potentially disrupt that, I suppress it.
But you can’t do that forever. Over time, that bubble’s going to burst. That existential or nihilist crisis comes back, and it makes me question my worth, my identity, my sense of place, my very existence etc.
And then came Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film that blindsided me and swept me off my feet, and was everything I ever needed at the right time. It’s a very noisy time. Every day, there is anger, frustration, sadness, and confusion. Most of all, none of us have the time to process and make sense of it all. Instead, we all just have to keep going. Survive. Get by. Exist without really living. During times like these, it’s easy to fall into despair, to feel like nothing you do matters. Our very existence doesn’t matter. We came here with no purpose, and all the nonsense we deal with on a daily basis just reminds us of how small and stupid we really are.
The Daniels, their filmmaking team, that cast of beautiful actors – they were the first people, that I can recall at least, who acknowledged that despair up front. They were also the first people who told me that it is okay to feel all of that. And then they offered me a way to keep my head up.
As a child of immigrant parents, a millennial, an Asian American, and just a person in general who can feel overwhelmed at any day of the week, I have never felt this seen before, in every corner of my identity. What brings me an endless amount of joy and… relief(?)… is that many moviegoers out there are sharing the same sentiment. The closest analogy I can think of is it feels like showing a movie you deeply love to someone you deeply care about, and then when the movie ends, they tell you they love it too.
Perhaps that is why Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) are so relatable, because we have all been in their places multiple times in our lives. We barely have time for introductions, because we are thrown right into the chaos of their day-to-day activities in running their family laundromat business.
Well, today is especially chaotic: Evelyn has to sort out her tax forms from an IRS audit, her husband Waymond is trying to serve her divorce papers, her father Gong Gong (James Hong) just arrived from Hong Kong, her lesbian daughter Joy is still trying to get her to accept her girlfriend Becky, and all of this is happening right before they need to host a Chinese New Year celebration.
All of this noise could not be more truthful to me. I was raised in a household where my dad was the breadwinner, running a tech startup. Mom, on the other hand, took care of the house, me, my sister, the whole family, everything. She did everything for me and never asked for a break. Meanwhile, my younger self had a lot of unimportant stress and silly drama to deal with and would often ask for attention and guidance. But when you’re busy making a living and putting food on the table, there’s only so much you can give at the moment.
Evelyn loves her daughter. Even in the first act of the film, when she tells Joy that she needs to lose weight, I knew what that was. I think everyone with Asian parents knew. But of course, it’s not what Joy needed to hear, and it’s hard to just ask for it. It’s always hard for me to just say what I feel to my parents. It was hard for Mei in Turning Red, it was hard for Joy in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Instead, we internalize, but that comes with a whole other form of emotional baggage. We start blaming ourselves for feeling the way we do to begin with, we try to correct our way of thinking, and we make the problem about us. And then we try to move on. But that’s when the gap starts to form – literally a gap between generations – and it’s only a question of when the planets collide (a visual the Daniels used for a split second, amongst their kaleidoscope of visuals).
For Evelyn, that collision starts with her sudden involvement in multiversal shenanigans, where she is bombarded with an overload of information and content on the multiverse and the possibilities that come with it, something we are all experiencing in this Internet age. But on a personal level, things change for Evelyn when she realizes her daughter is Jobu Tupaki, the greatest threat the multiverse has ever seen, even though nobody knows what she wants.
Well, it turns out that Joy/Jobu is not traversing the multiverse to destroy everything. Rather, she’s been searching for a version of Evelyn who can understand her despair. I can barely describe how true that need is. “Just hear me out.” “Just listen to me for a second.” “Understand where I’m coming from.” It’s hard to explain why these things are so difficult to get off one’s chest. How could I ask my parents to stop what they’re doing to listen to me, when everything they’re doing is to help prepare me to have a successful future? But time and time again, amidst all the chaotic noise we go through every day, we still go back to our parents, our family, searching for that connection.
I can imagine how easy it is to invite darkness if one is overwhelmed and completely alone in that fight. We start thinking about things we should have done or things we should have never done. Maybe I should have never taken that job. Maybe I should have never moved. Maybe I should have never married. Maybe I should have never had kids. And those thoughts numb you.
So what keeps me going? Honestly, it’s exactly Waymond’s philosophy in the film. He chooses to see the good side of things. He says it’s not a sign of him being naive, but it’s a strategic and necessary way to fight. After the Daniels spent a good chunk of the film flying across universes, they manage to pull us back down to Earth, our one and only Earth, and say it is the things we do to each other and for each other that can keep us going. Be a Waymond to someone you care about, and cherish the person who is a Waymond to you. The world is full of small and stupid things, full of rocks, so be that person who adds googly eyes to them. Nothing matters, but there is so much to do. To hear all of those things spoken to me… on the big screen… in Mandarin… it took my breath away. It made my chest hurt, but I knew I was happy.
Many writers have already expressed beautifully how Everything Everywhere All At Once captures the essence of optimistic nihilism. There is so much you can do. Do what you like, what you want, what makes you feel good, and the most exciting part is that *YOU* get to decide what that is for yourself. But to see that kind of hopeful message wrapped around an honest portrayal of a Chinese family going through financial, internal, generational struggles only to overcome it together… I can’t describe how that feels.
The Daniels loaded their film with a bombardment of silly but deep things. What comes off as juvenile jokes in the first half are all set-ups for their big heartfelt message at the end. With that, I want to match the Daniels with an equally silly but deep thing. It’s a specific passage in a poem. If you want to read the entire thing, you can find it in the end credits of Minecraft, a silly but deceptively profound game whose mechanics, fundamental design, and philosophy touches on the same optimistic nihilism from the film. When the player “beats the game,” this is part of what they get to read:
I mean this in the best way possible: We’ve come a long way since Crazy Rich Asians. I firmly believe that Everything Everywhere All At Once wouldn’t have existed four years ago, but I also firmly believe that the film wouldn’t be here without all the other films that came before it. Ke Huy Quan himself said he stepped back into acting because he felt the worst case of FOMO when he saw Crazy Rich Asians. Films that champion “diversity” and “representation” cannot just be a one time thing. We cannot put that responsibility on just one movie. Rather, it’s a constant effort to create space for our stories to thrive. Because my journey in being an Asian American and learning what that even means is a constant effort.
With that, I am thankful for all of those films that made the effort, that built that path. I am grateful they exist. But right now, at this moment, I am particularly thankful for Everything Everywhere All At Once. Knowing that I can carry this film with me for the rest of my life, that I can in fact go forth with pride and joy of who I am and what I can do for myself and the people I love, is something I will forever cherish.