What grounds the film’s world-hopping madness, though, is its dedication to portraying a Chinese American family in the present, while utilizing the multiverse to explore the breadth of their desires and dreams — unrealized or not.
“Dan Kwan especially believes the immigrant experience is suited to the multiverse in ways that superheroes aren’t equipped,” writes Eric Francesco in an interview with directors Daniels for Inverse. The metaphorized multiverse reflects EEAAO’s impressive ability to wield science fiction for people at the margins, with a focus on imagination and how the past and present inform their sense of self.
The film’s core reveals a story of intergenerational healing and understanding, women saving themselves and each other, and men whose masculinities are grounded in vulnerability. We witness queer love and the fight for acceptance between generations, along with the universal struggle of reaching past differences and grasping for moments of connection with parents and the world at large.
EEAAO opens with family laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) sorting through a tax audit. Intricate family dynamics are spun early on: her husband, Waymond is trying to serve her divorce papers. She is distracted from her perpetually disappointed father, Gong Gong, and her estranged daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whom she struggles to apologize to and instead comments on her weight.
Later, when her alternative universe husband shows her the branching paths her life could have taken, imploring her to use universe-jumping technology to save the world, Evelyn’s still thinking about her taxes — and especially the IRS employee, Deidre (Jamie Curtis) glowering at her across the table.
Not long after, Evelyn finds herself battling her way through an IRS building. She comes up against the most powerful being in the universe: her own daughter from an alternate universe, Jobu Tupaki. Jobu is the cause for everything that feels off-kilter in the world, and her chaotic nihilism leaves death and destruction in her wake. Evelyn resolves to defeat this omnipresent entity to save her daughter.
The origin story Jobu Tupaki, Joy’s villain alter-ego, highlights parent-child relationships centered around expectation. In the alpha-verse, Jobu’s mother (alpha-Evelyn) pushed her to a breaking point while training to verse-jump, fracturing Jobu’s mind. Jobu, filled with deep hatred and desire for revenge, goes so far as to leaving countless alternate-universe Evelyn’s dead — all in an effort to find a version of her mother who truly understands her experiences.
For Evelyn, who has taken all her squandered dreams as an immigrant and pinned them on her daughter, it’s easier to believe that an omnipresent power is controlling Joy. One of the most moving moments of the film comes from her eventual acceptance that she is the source of her daughter’s pain. She comes to terms with the fact that her daughter is her own person, who has dropped out of college, has a girlfriend, tattoos and is grappling with depression.
Evelyn’s mindset parallels those in China, where gay marriage is neither legalized nor criminalized: the idea that LGBTQ equality is borne of Western ideology rather than the personhood of those advocating for themselves.
The humanity of the characters is inextricable from their queerness, and the Daniels have stated their commitment to keeping gay storylines in distribution in China according to IndieWire. The move is only fitting for a film with predominant themes of conditional acceptance and a refusal for compartmentalization.
Witnessing Evelyn and Joy skillfully kick butt is cathartic and gratifying, but so are their vulnerabilities laid bare in the difficult, emotional conversations they have in order to heal their strained relationship. What was striking, too, was Evelyn’s confrontation with her father, who essentially disowned her when she married Waymond. To Gong Gong, reconciliation is unimaginable. Seeing Evelyn break the intergenerational cycle to stand up for herself and her daughter was a miraculously triumphant moment — especially to those who have experienced parents reenacting similar patterns of hurt, or seen their own kin reflected in this fictional family’s actions.
EEAAO may seem sentimental, but the film truly constitutes a complex understanding of human stories at interpersonal and societal levels. During times that encroach on our agency and connectedness, the comforts of nihilism beckon. Still, Evelyn reaches towards kindness, displaying love for each of her adversaries through something she’s learned about them from other worlds.
The film is a refreshing departure from erasure and orientalism in Asian cinema, yet it contains a warm familiarity, too. I watched it for the first time at a writing camp over summer, splayed out in someone’s dorm with several roommates. Many of us were Asian; many were not. By the end of the film, all of us were moved to tears. The struggles of these characters and subtle microaggressions written into the dialogue reminded me of the victims of Asian violence during the pandemic, and our long history of media and legislation and biased representation — making for a viewing experience even more special, bittersweet and healing.
EEAAO made me imagine worlds and futures where we could heal painful relationships with our mothers and loved ones. Perhaps this is futurism itself: a future where we can heal and dream about everything we want to be everywhere else, too.