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Everything Everywhere All At Once. 2022. Directed by Daniels (Daniel Kwan 關家永 & Daniel Scheinert), performances by Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Stephanie Hsu 許瑋倫, Ke Huy Quan 關繼威, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr. 岑勇康, James Hong 漢章, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Everything Everywhere All At Once posterI usually get a drink when I go see a movie in a theater. An Icee, because it feels luxurious somehow, like a proper cinema treat. Between fidgeting with the straw and stimming by taking sips, I usually finish my drink about ten minutes into a movie, if I didn’t already finish it during the previews.

The lights dimmed. Everything Everywhere All At Once began to play. I watched, transfixed.

Ten minutes passed, with me motionless.

By the time the credits rolled, my Icee had completely melted, untouched.

It was as if I had just seen my own brain projected onto the screen. And there were things in Everything Everywhere All At Once that I’d never seen before on the big screen. I’m not talking about the dildo fights, though those were indeed new to me. I’m talking more about seeing an immigrant Chinese mother allowed to fail, and fail repeatedly; seeing a dorky Chinese dad be a badass and a love interest; seeing a Chinese family openly having emotionally vulnerable reconciliations with each other; seeing an entire cast of people from multiple Chinese diasporas coming together to create a movie in which the greatest villain to defeat is the bureaucracy excluding Chinese people from being part of the United States. Nor had I ever seen a movie that so thoroughly reflected my own philosophical, moral, and ethical understandings of the world, mirroring them so closely that I wept with the resonance of its message. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a Chinese-American kung fu science fiction movie that pays homage to iconic works from Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema while creating a new kind of action movie, one in which empathy wins.

There is a lot I could say about this movie. I have an entire list of topics I want to cover, including Chinese-American representation, cultural context for several details throughout the film, the pacing and visuals of the movie as mirrors of my ADHD brain, queer representation and gender, the sensitive portrayal of kink and sexuality; I could go on and on. For this review, though, I want to focus on the cosmological framework of the movie and my read of it as reflecting Taoist, existential nihilist, and humanist philosophies.

It’s an overwhelming undertaking, articulating my expansive personal philosophies in a concise way; but I think it’s important, now more than ever, to hold a space to discuss the cosmology of Everything Everywhere All At Once. I’m writing this review on July 4, 2022, shortly after the Supreme Court of the United States rolled back several protections of human rights and self-autonomy, most notably Roe v. Wade, alongside decisions such as Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta that infringe on Native sovereignty. Underlying much of the ideology of the court is an influential contingent of evangelical Christians who have, over decades, unrelentingly eroded the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. One sect’s ideas for society—how we behave, how we express ourselves, how we treat others—has taken root as the foundation for a rising Christofascism: a reactionary, White supremacist hegemony that seeks to impose one way of life in an imperial, colonial, and religious conquest.

So I feel a duty to dissent. To call out history happening as I see it, and provide another framework with which we might understand the world, one that is entirely outside the scope of “religion” as the Christian West understands it. To show people that “religious plurality,” the concept on which the United States was purportedly founded, includes things that can’t actually be described as “religion” at all.

I remember being in high school English class, absolutely baffled when people pointed out the Christian subtext in so many of the works we had to read. Symbols that I, raised in a household apathetic about religion, had completely missed; stories that were completely alien to me and bored me with how unrelatable they were, down to the very core of the moral questions the characters struggled with. It wasn’t a question of race—my fellow Asian-American classmates who had been raised Christian connected with the symbolism in the work, finding resonance and impact in the metaphors that I didn’t. No, when I think back to when I first felt excluded from literature, it was from religious representation that I first had a sense that I didn’t belong, and with the mistrust of atheists that I first felt a sense of marginalization, that people would deem me unworthy over their mistaken understanding of how I lived my life.

It’s been fifteen, almost twenty years since those first English classes. Another seven years since I joined the genre industry in 2015. I’m thirty-one years old now, and Everything Everywhere All At Once is the first work in my life I have ever experienced, in any medium from any country in any language, that reflects my understanding of the world, my understanding of our place in it, my understanding of how we should treat each other.

A movie that reflects all those complexities—and became the top-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes of all time.

Proof that people liked the world as seen through my eyes. That they wanted to see the world as I see it.

I am going to assume that you watched the movie, or that you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia. There’s just so much going on in Everything Everywhere All At Once that summarizing it as I would do in a more traditional review would take a further thousand words that I don’t have it in me to write right now, not when there’s already so much ground to cover. The short summary: In the middle of a stressful tax audit, Chinese-American immigrant Evelyn Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊) not only discovers that there’s a multiverse, but that she’s the key player in saving it, with skills that she must acquire from her counterparts in other universes, all while trying to repair her rapidly unraveling relationships with her daughter Joy (played by Stephanie Hsu 許瑋倫), husband Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan 關繼威), and father (played by James Hong 吳漢章).

Now that that’s out of the way, the rest of this review will cover the following topics: (1) an introduction to the term “cosmological framework” and its advantages over the term “religion”; (2) Taoist symbols and ideologies in Everything Everywhere All At Once; (3) dual interpretations of existential nihilism as represented by Evelyn and Joy/Jobu Tupaki; and (4) the intertwining of bodhisattva 觀音 Guānyīn with Confucian humanist ideals as represented through Evelyn and Waymond.

“Cosmological frameworks” as a response to the limitations of the term “religion”

The USA assumes at the core of its nationbuilding that (1) religion exists, (2) religion is a universal experience, and (3) religion is a discrete entity that can be separated from politics and governance.

But the term “religion” struggles to describe the traditions of East Asia, and subsequently the worldviews of many Asian Americans, myself included. If I were to fully describe my “religious” identity, I would say that I am an atheist agnostic existential nihilist Taoist Buddhist Confucianist humanist. I had previously used the term “practitioner of Chinese folk religion,” but I’ve since abandoned it—it just feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the massive spheres of divergent philosophical influence that intersect in me.

The term “religion” does not adequately describe the multiple belief systems represented in Everything Everywhere All At Once, either. That is because, at its core, “religion” is a term that cannot be separated from Christianity, and there are no Christian motifs in this movie—in fact, the film subverts the savior trope so often found in Western genre narratives. In The Invention of Religion in Japan (2012), Jason Ānanda Josephson argues that the concept of “religion” did not exist in Japan until warships from the USA arrived in 1853 and demanded “freedom of religion” in their treaties, forcing Japan to translate and contend with the foreign concept. The opportunity to define the concept of “religion”—always rooted, then, in Christianity—gave Japan a politically expedient way to articulate nationbuilding goals, and gave the Christian West a framework for understanding traditions outside of Christianity in a way that still preserved Christian epistemological understandings of the world and its divisions. [1]

So “religion” is not an indigenous framework of understanding the world in East Asia, nor one that is ever truly discrete from nationbuilding. Josephson’s description of the philosophical ecology in East Asia as being one of “overlapping cultural systems” resonates with my own experience. I do not typically think of myself as “an atheist agnostic existential nihilist Taoist Buddhist Confucianist humanist”—those are simply the droplets of water in the whirling maelstrom that is my philosophical mindsea. Whether from canons that extend back to India, traditions that arose in China, schools of thought articulated in France, or the influences of pluricentric understandings of ethics found in belief systems such as Judaism and Sikhism, the lens through which I see the world is an amalgamation of cultural systems from around the world, one in which there is no central text or authority, nor divine beings to which I give up agency. There is only me, my choices, and their consequences.

If not “religion,” then what term can properly encapsulate the complexity of my experience? Ted Lee (personal communication, June 26, 2022) proposes overlapping frameworks that can be used to analyze worldviews: (1) cosmological, which forms a foundation for (2) epistemological and (3) ethical frameworks, as well as optional (4) eschatological frameworks.

  • Cosmological frameworks explain the universe and our location in it, encompassing tools such as nomenclature of the cosmos, origin stories, and creation myths.

Once we understand our place in the universe, further frameworks develop, though not necessarily in any particular order:

  • Epistemological frameworks concern gnosis: how we know what we know, how we learn, and what counts as “knowledge.”
  • Ethical frameworks provide guidance on how to make decisions and distinguish right from wrong.
  • Eschatological frameworks conceptualize the trajectory of time, encompassing both cyclic understandings of time and stories about end times, but are not a universal feature of all cosmological frameworks.

“Cosmological framework” encompasses the term “religion,” but the reverse is not true: “religion” does not adequately describe all cosmological frameworks. A further benefit of the term is that it is not normative: “cosmological framework” does not presume the existence of a canon or authority. Instead, cosmological frameworks are shaped by personal experience, and in turn are used to interpret experiences, forming an ever-evolving understanding of existence. “Cosmological framework” is also broad enough to describe phenomena not typically thought of as “religion,” such as fandom and nation, that nonetheless form lenses through which we understand the world and our place in it.

With that in mind, a caveat: What follows is not an authoritative treatise on any of the cosmological frameworks I cover. I am in no way an expert on Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, existential nihilism, or humanism—each has a massive body of scholarship that I have barely begun to wade into. I am only an expert on my own personal interpretations of each framework and how I as an individual live them. There are a multitude of variations in each school of thought as well, and my perspective cannot be considered a complete representation of any particular group’s beliefs—only my own.

Taoism, the Everything Bagel, googly eyes, and restoration as narrative structure

From reading multiple interviews with the Daniels, it seems the directors of Everything Everywhere All At Once had many big philosophical ideas that drove the core of their film, but there wasn’t a particular cosmological framework cited as the main scaffold of the film. So I can’t claim to know directorial intent and say definitively that anything in the film was meant to be Taoist. Ultimately, the 道教 dàojiào Taoism I’m reading from it is a projection of my own framework onto the Rorschach test that is the movie. But a Taoist semiotics provides a coherent system that ties together the film’s seemingly disparate elements into a narrative cosmology that makes internal sense.

Two Taoist symbols power the motion of the movie: 無極⚪️ wújí and 太極☯️ tàijí [2].  

無極 wújí—in the cosmological diagram the 太極圖 tàijítú—precedes 太極☯️ tàijí. 無 wú means “without,” and 極 jí means “boundary.” 無極⚪️ wújí is boundless: the primordial void; infinite yet simultaneously nothing; the chaos engine from which the world arises: i.e., everything, everywhere, all at once. In Zen Buddhism, 無極⚪️ wújí gives rise to 円相 ensō  [3], a minimalist symbol of enlightenment drawn in one fluid stroke.

Ichi ensō gasan by Sengai

一円相画賛 Ichi ensō gasan by 仙厓 Sengai (1750–1837). Courtesy Idemitsu Museum of Arts.

In the film, the Everything Bagel evokes an immediate resemblance to 円相⭕️ ensō, both in form and in meaning: it is the boundary of an unboundable place, the antimatter from which matter can be defined. Circle motifs recur throughout Everything Everywhere All At Once, not only in the Everything Bagel, but also in the opening shot through a mirror, framed in a way that echoes the round moon gates of Chinese architecture; the laundromat spin cycles; the circled details on receipts in the tax audit; and the googly eyes.

太 tài refers to extremes, and 極 jí to poles or boundaries. 太極 tàijí, then, encompasses two ends of a spectrum, two aspects to any whole: the most basic division of the world, a push-and-pull exchange, a fulcrum upon which “balance,” and thereby “peace” and “harmony,” can be defined. Within the 太極☯️ tàijí symbol, white is associated with 陽 yáng: masculine, the sun, light, day, heat, logic, dominance, justice; while black is associated with 陰 yīn: feminine, the moon, darkness, night, cold, emotion, submission, mercy [4]. The dot within each eddy is a representation that each aspect nonetheless contains elements of the other: that the two are not a mutually exclusive binary, but a mutually reinforcing duality.

Under a Taoist cosmological framework, we all contain dualities and multitudes. The characters of Everything Everywhere All At Once are foils for each other, forming inverses that complement each other rather than being in conflict with one another. The push and pull of these dualities is key to the subversive movement of the movie. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all solution to Evelyn’s problems: she cannot kick and punch her way to victory. Absent Hollywood’s panacea of violence, Everything Everywhere All At Once must rely on a deeper analytical framework of narrative to achieve emotional resonance.

The Taoist concept of 無為 wúwéi, comprised of 無 wú ‘without’ and 為 wéi ‘to do, to act,’ is often translated as “inaction.” But that implies a passivity that mischaracterizes the philosophy. 無為 wúwéi contends in a complex way with the psychological concept of locus of control, and has as its foundation a “do no harm” ethos. It is not that an individual’s actions have no impact on the world, but the opposite: that the individual must think beyond the self to consider a broad scope when making decisions and taking action. An individual cannot let selfish desires and shortsighted priorities take over their ethics and judgment, or foolishly believe that the consequences do not apply to them, but instead must redress foundational, systemic problems. There is a natural balance to the cosmos, an equilibrium, and the goal is to achieve that equilibrium by properly remedying imbalances: a humanist, pacifist way of life.

Enter the googly eyes.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊) places a googly eye on her forehead.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊) places a googly eye on her forehead.

Returning to the 太極☯️ tàijí paradigm of duality, the Everything Bagel implies an inverse of the Everything Bagel: a positive that complements the negative, an active agent of creation that counteracts the passive destruction of the void. There is the obvious color symbolism here, in that the googly eye is the inverse of the Everything Bagel: a black pupil surrounded by a white boundary, contrasting with the bagel’s white void surrounded by a black boundary.

Multiverse Everything Everywhere All At Once variant poster entitled Rocks: The History of Earth’s Oldest Objects, featuring googly eyes on rock!Evelyn.

Multiverse Everything Everywhere All At Once variant poster entitled Rocks: The History of Earth’s Oldest Objects, featuring googly eyes on rock!Evelyn. Image courtesy A24 via The Mary Sue.

But the mirrored pair of the Everything Bagel and the googly eye is not the only place where this Taoist color symbolism occurs. In the silent canyon scene with rock!Jobu and rock!Evelyn—an illustration in itself of the Taoist concept of 靜坐 jīngzuò ‘sitting in quiet contemplation’ or 坐忘 zuòwàng ‘sitting in oblivion,’ wherein the ego dissolves to irrelevance among the chaos and scope of the cosmos—Evelyn’s dialogue is represented in black and Jobu Tupaki’s in white,  maintaining the color-coding in the Void, where Jobu Tupaki and her followers are in white and Evelyn wears contrasting dark robes, and keeping a symbolic continuity of Evelyn as an ideological foil to Jobu Tupaki, the 陰 yīn to Jobu’s 陽 yáng.

Evelyn, once she has reached enlightenment and can comprehend the oneness of the multiversal cosmos, dons the googly eye as the prologue to cinema’s greatest fight scene that isn’t a fight scene, which takes place on the staircase of the IRS building. Rather than using violence on the antagonists, Evelyn reaches into their psyches to find desires that haven’t yet been fulfilled, imbalances of power and opportunity: the roots of people’s dissatisfaction. It is her compassion and empathy, unlocked through the model set by her husband Waymond, that allow her to follow a 無為 wúwéi path to come up with novel solutions, ones that find the missing puzzle pieces to create a genuine sense of restoration: of healing, rather than conquest.

無為 wúwéi and existential nihilism as frameworks of liberation

I stated in the preamble to this essay that Everything Everywhere All At Once is a Chinese-American movie. Not a movie that is only Chinese in philosophy, but also deeply American, with Western philosophical influences and a US political context. There is the cosmological framework of science fiction as interpreted through Western touchstones such as the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy of five books (1979–92) [5]. There is also the imprint of existential nihilism, a cosmological framework that has developed at multiple points in history, but that I came to know mostly through the movement that arose in the 1940s in France. I first learned of existential nihilism through taking AP European History in high school, where the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in particular resonated with me as rare atheistic frameworks in a curriculum full of Christianity.

Existential nihilism, in short, posits that life has no inherent meaning or value. This, however, doesn’t automatically mean that life is meaningless. Instead, with no inherent meaning, all meaning becomes a negotiation with the self and a negotiation between individuals.

There are two poles to the spectrum of life having no inherent meaning, each of which align with characters in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

A pessimist understanding of existential nihilism posits that, since there’s no meaning, there is no point in resisting destruction or oblivion. Oblivion, chaos, 無極⚪️ wújí, are instead the natural state of the world, and the individual ego surrenders to inevitability. Jobu Tupaki is the film’s primary character aligned to this pole, though Alpha Gonggong also displays shades of the philosophy in his blunt utilitarianism.

An optimist understanding of existential nihilism, meanwhile, posits that, since there is no meaning and nothing has inherent value, meaning and value can thus be constructed out of anything. This optimist pole—a generative and creative pole—taken to its extreme can beautifully power absurdist art, such as Everything Everywhere All At Once, which will make you cry with its heart-rending depiction of people who have hot dogs for fingers slapping them against themselves and spraying mustard from them into each other’s mouths as a courtship ritual [6]. Nothing is off-limits; nothing is taboo. No situation is so absurd that meaning and sense cannot still be carved from it.

Although Evelyn embodies this philosophy toward the end of the film, it is ultimately Waymond who most deeply embodies optimistic existential nihilism, as most thoroughly articulated in Waymond and Wong Kar-Waymond's [7] simultaneous speech preceding the climax [8]:

Waymond: I know you’re all fighting because you’re scared, and you’re confused. I’m confused too. All day, I don’t know what the heck is going on. But somehow, this feels like it’s all my fault.

Wong Kar-Waymond: 我總是看到事情好的一面,不是因為我天真,而是必要和需要。這也就是我的生存之道。[When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naïve. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything. (lit. This is the path [道 dào ‘Tao’] I have taken to survive.)]

Waymond: I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please. Be kind. Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.

Wong Kar-Waymond: 我理解到妳[9] 不是一個服輸的人。我也何嘗不是。只是我們選擇的處理方式不一樣。[I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight. (lit. I understand that you aren’t a person who admits defeat. Nor am I. It’s just that the methods we’ve chosen are different.)]

Rather than offering an easy, ignorant, or oversimplified understanding of the world, Waymond articulates here an optimist existential nihilism that extends grace and compassion to all, a generosity of interpretation that is so necessary in today’s age of polarized rhetoric and malicious misunderstanding of people’s intents. He is the moral 道 dào ‘Tao’ of the film: the Way[mond].

Furthermore, Waymond’s optimism is not mutually exclusive with realism. Instead, it is a 無為 wúwéi approach: one that sees the circumstances for exactly what they are and seeks an appropriate method to address them, one that understands the full context as a gestalt.

In 2016, we were like, “Life is chaos.” […] Whether we want to believe it or not, we are living in a very nihilistic moment […] and no single narrative that we tell ourselves is going to make sense. (Dan Kwan 關家永, quoted by Shirley Li in The Atlantic.)

Everything Everywhere All At Once is not the first time a cosmological framework of existential nihilism has arisen concurrently alongside fascism. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, theorized in the midst of the Nazi invasion of France during World War II. Rather than being an abdication of responsibility, existential nihilism, to me, is a deeply subversive form of resistance and liberation, a tool for resilience under ideological hegemony. You can discard dogma at will and restructure your narrative of yourself and of the world at any time. There is no sin or stain to which you are irrevocably anchored; no failure that you are always destined to be; no inescapable fatalism. You are always free to redefine yourself, to grow, to incorporate new knowledge about the world, to treat yourself and others better—to go against the status quo and forge a new way ahead in uncertain times.

Confucianist and Buddhist humanisms

In Dan Kwan 關家永 and Daniel Scheinert’s directors’ commentary—available with the film via an iTunes Extra—the duo known collectively as “The Daniels” describe Everything Everywhere All At Once as “an action movie all about empathy.” Confucian 仁 rén benevolence and Buddhist compassion are both modes of empathy: ways of perspective-taking, of projecting ourselves into the internal multiverses of other people, so that we may understand them, connect with them, and build deeper relationships with them.

Humanism is an ethical framework that assumes as its foundation the intrinsic value and inalienable equality of all human life, and from there commits to redressing inequality and dismantling institutions that keep humans unequal [10]. Humanism is not unique to any particular cosmological framework—Confucianism and Buddhism both have their own takes on humanism. Rather than going over the entirety of Confucianism or Buddhism, though, I will be narrowing my scope to just the Confucian concept of 仁 rén ‘benevolence’ and the Buddhist figure 觀音 Guānyīn, who is synonymous with compassion.

Although 孔子 Confucius did not originate the ideas that make up Confucianism, he served as an influential arbiter of those ideas and values. Confucianism is coded in many ways as masculine and is structured as a patriarchy [11]. Buddhism’s 觀音 Guānyīn, meanwhile, is distinctly feminine—although originally depicted as masculine in Indian Buddhist traditions as अवलोकितेश्वर Avalokiteśvara, 觀音 Guānyīn in Chinese traditions is high femme. Furthermore, “觀音 Guānyīn” is itself a contraction of 觀世音 Guānshìyīn, which is typically translated as “she who hears the cries of the world.”

As does Evelyn: in the last shot of the movie, Evelyn looks off absently, hearing the whispers of voices from across the multiverse that she now experiences simultaneously. But 觀 guān does not only refer to hearing: in its more common understanding, 觀 guān means “to see, to observe” and includes the 目 mù ‘eye’ radical.

And so the googly eye returns.

Poster for Everything Everywhere All At Once by James Jean featuring, among many, many things, Evelyn meditating with a googly eye between her hands.

Poster for Everything Everywhere All At Once by James Jean featuring, among many, many things, Evelyn meditating with a googly eye between her hands. Courtesy A24 via Gizmodo.

At the climax of the movie, Evelyn confronts Jobu Tupaki before the black hole that is the Everything Bagel and yells, “I! Am! Your! Mother!” in what the Daniels describe in the directors’ commentary as an “I am Neo” moment. The line reaffirms Evelyn’s role as the matriarch in the movie, the feminine embodiment of compassion, paralleling 觀音 Guānyīn. In fact, Taiwanese taglines for Everything Everywhere All At Once describe the movie as “more Marvel than Marvel,” using a transliteration of “Marvel” that translates to “mother-Buddha,” 媽佛 Māfó, further reinforcing this read of Evelyn.

Meanwhile, Waymond, as literal patriarch and metaphorical embodiment of Confucianist 仁 rén benevolence, is the 陽 yáng counterpart to Evelyn’s 陰 yīn. Together, they form a masculine and feminine duality, one in which Waymond embodies a soft masculinity, and Evelyn a hard femininity. As a character, 仁 rén ‘benevolence’ is comprised of the 人 rén ‘human’ radical and 二 èr ‘two,’ suggesting an interdependency between people. 仁 rén is altruistic, a nurturing quality that seeks to elevate all people, and also carries with it a sense of duty. Waymond, who mediates between people so effortlessly and seeks to foster an environment of kindness, is a paradigmatic representation of 仁 rén benevolence.

Evelyn and Waymond, then, complement each other as overlapping frameworks, as two sides to a 太極☯️ tàijí whole. When Evelyn and Waymond kissed at the end of the movie, I felt a huge blossom of emotion. On the surface, I reacted, of course, to the overwhelming newness and vulnerability of seeing two Chinese immigrant parents share a tender public expression of affection on the big screen (something I hardly ever witness even in real life, despite growing up and living in a Chinese-American enclave).

But the deeper resonance of the scene was in its coherence as a period at the end of a long philosophical treatise. It was narratively right not because of any cisheteronormative expectations of how a story should play out. Instead, as a concluding symbol in the massive semiotics of Everything Everywhere All At Once, the kiss was to me a natural, 無為 wúwéi conclusion to the imbalances set up in the beginning of the narrative. It represents a union: a reconciliation, a literal manifestation of the massive work of “connection.” Divorce and marriage are merely superficial dressings to illustrate a broader notion of relationship-building and doing the work to bridge the distance between people.

“A new kind of action movie”

I think it’s a dangerous thing, making a movie. You can accidentally make the world a worse place. (Daniel Scheinert, quoted by Shirley Li in The Atlantic.)

Two hours and nineteen minutes is a long runtime for a movie, particularly one that is as much of a sensory riot as Everything Everywhere All At Once. Yet, at the same time, two hours and nineteen minutes is an impressively short span of time in which to articulate a humanist and pacifist ethos of empathy, one that is a self-encapsulated illustration of a such a massive cosmological framework.

The humanist and pacifist ethics of Everything Everywhere All At Once go beyond the confines of the fourth wall. In the directors’ commentary, the Daniels describe many ways in which they structured the production of the movie to be a nurturing and mindful environment, one that fosters creativity while maintaining healthy work limits and safe labor conditions, especially when stunts were involved. The cast, as documented in the iTunes Extra featurette “The Daniels,” describe the production of the movie as a positive experience; there’s even a clip of one of the warm-up morale-building exercises being led by Jamie Lee Curtis. Always conscious of their power as filmmakers to make the world a worse place, the Daniels have in Everything Everywhere All At Once created something that makes the world a better place, not just in the stories the movie tells, but also in the production models for humane labor practices in an industry rife with exploitation.

Genre’s strength is in its ability to imagine different possibilities. New ways of telling stories; new contexts; new challenges; new resolutions. Yet it is the same fundamental tumult of human emotion that ultimately carries any story. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a new masterpiece of genre, one that beautifully illustrates that very duality between our macro contexts and our micro intimacies. While pushing the conventions of genre to its absurdist extremes, Everything Everywhere All At Once lays out a radically different way of envisioning the world, one that, like Evelyn with open arms, truly embraces our innate pluralities.


[1] Josephson, Jason Ānanda. 2011. “The invention of Japanese religions.” Religion Compass 5/10: 589–597. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00307.x. <>. Accessed 04 July 2022. [return]

[2] I use traditional Chinese characters along with the Mandarin pinyin romanization system in this essay as a reflection of my own linguistic background. Orthographies and pronunciations of the terms vary between varieties of Chinese. I’ve also assigned emojis to some concepts as visual aids for increased legibility. Additionally, English glosses of terms accompany the Chinese in single quotes, following linguistics style conventions; use of no quotes or double quotes for the bilingual terms follows US English style conventions of whether I’m using a term as-is or referencing it. [return]

[3] A Japanese term written here in kanji and Hepburn romanization. [return]

[4] Wen, Benebell. 2016. “Yin and yang general correspondences,” table 1.1 in The Tao of Craft: Fu talismans and casting sigils in the Eastern esoteric tradition. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. [return]

[5] The science fiction cosmological framework of Everything Everywhere All At Once is slightly out of the scope of this essay. It will be part of a future essay I plan to write, though. [return]

[6] It makes sense in context. [return]

[7] A contraction of “Wong Kar-wai!Waymond,” named after the major 王家衛 Wong Kar-wai In the Mood for Love (2000) vibes in the movie star!Evelyn ’verse. Ke Huy Quan 關繼威, who plays Waymond, was also assistant director on 王家衛 Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004). [return]

[8] Chinese and English transcribed from subtitles in Apple TV digital edition of Everything Everywhere All At Once. [return]

[9] [sic]. I do not personally use the gendered second-person pronoun 妳, but the subtitles are typeset in traditional characters and use 妳. [return]

[10] For an excellent primer on humanism from a US context, refer to Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson, published April 2020 by Pitchstone Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-6343119-8-4 (paperback) 978-1-6343119-9-1 (ebook). [return]

[11] I have Opinions on how to revise Confucianism to be feminist and nonbinary. Unfortunately, they are outside the scope of this essay. [return]


My deepest thanks to Ted Lee for introducing me to the term “cosmological framework” and giving me the vocabulary to articulate my experiences.

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website,
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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