This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.
An immigrant woman—broken English, middle-aged, and soon to be audited by the IRS—is the most powerful person in the universe. She’s center-frame, has an interior life, and can jump multiverses on a dingy bluetooth earphone to save humanity from evil. Not only that, there are no seedy brothels marked by red lanterns, no kimonos paired with conical hats. This premise is odd, even ludacris for science fiction and the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Something must be off in the algorithm.
Wacky and surprising isn’t uncommon for the director duo that goes by the name of Daniels (with no “the”), also known as Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. In their recently released sci-fi-action-drama movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Daniels take us to multiple universes through an unlikely and often overlooked heroine: an immigrant woman of color.
Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a laundromat owner who is preparing for an IRS audit, on top of her disapproving elderly father’s visit from China (James Hong). Her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), serves her divorce papers unexpectedly, while her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) introduces her girlfriend to the family. Both husband and daughter desperately beg for the stressed-out matriarch’s love and attention.
With their granny cart full of receipts, Wang, her father, and husband meet Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), the IRS auditor who scolds them for out-of-the-ordinary expenses such as a karaoke machine and food. “You always try to confuse with big words,” Wang confronts, to which the auditor rebuts that Wang should’ve brought her translator: her first-generation daughter Joy.
Though it’s cathartic to see the bureaucracy and its gatekeepers as villainous, navigating marginalization is a reality for many Asian Americans. This linguistic isolation—of households who may not get the social services and care they need due to language barriers—is excellent for Act I, showing a day-in-the-life of an immigrant family. Immediately, I was reminded of my childhood as a first-gen who had to translate government documents for her parents. Even more, I’m surprised this dimensionality was made visible. In the movie, the Wang’s immigration journey to the US unfolded not from expats or saviorism, but rather romance and the characters’ own hope for the future. Could it be that Asian-American representation onscreen is changing, and if so, from what outmoded tradition?
Serendipitously, the day after I watched Everything Everywhere, I saw the multimedia presentation Asian Futures, Without Asians (2020–present) by artist and curator Astria Suparak. In her multi-part research project that examines how sci-fi films problematically source their materials, Suparak poses the question: “What does it mean when so many white filmmakers envision futures inflected by Asian culture, but devoid of actual Asian people?”
Sci-fi has a reputation for being white filmmakers’ chinoiserie activity. It’s a fun free-association game, where props and set designers can go wild in a Chinatown market and buy whatever seems foreign and odd to imagine in a cinematic future. Ultimately, this oddness is often equated with “Asianness.”
“It’s all the racist ideology about Asian people embedded into props,” said Suparak in the Imaginary Worlds podcast.
In Asian Futures, Suparak combs through the depictions and history of Asian architecture, food, weaponry, and more, in notable sci-fi staples such as Firefly (2002), Ex Machina (2014), Ghost in the Shell (2017), and Star Wars (1977–present). In a genre that has humans colonizing space, fighting interplanetary warfare, and enslaving aliens—sometimes realizing aliens are also sentient as a redemption arc—this casual Orientalism is not lost on me. What I hadn’t realized was how deeply ingrained it was, and is. Suparak describes first-time audiences seeing Asian Futures, Without Asians like being “red-pilled,” and suddenly I cannot unsee the copious amounts of red lanterns, Buddha statues, and bad wardrobe.
In sci-fi, the Chinese paper red lanterns often mark the impoverish sites of gang activities, the black market, and sex workers. Buddha and reclining Bodhisattva statues will brand mentor characters as wise and philosophical, whether or not they are Buddhist, or actually wise. Costumes will mix saris, turbans, kimonos, and wooden conical hats together—sometimes pitting different cultures like Japanese against Southwest Asia North Africa (SWANA). There’s so much to be unpacked in the presentation, one of many examples include: Asian skin worn like an avatar, Asian women are sex robots, and katana swords—especially on some mobster’s walls—depicts villainy or oppressive bureaucracy. As Suparak mentions, these sci-fi movies tend to scream, “they don’t protect or respect Asian people.”
In her 2020 book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, author and curator Legacy Russell wrote: “Othered bodies are rendered invisible because they cannot be read by a normative mainstream and therefore cannot be categorized. As such, they are erased or misclassified within and outside of an algorithmic designation.”
The cinema has long been a tool of white supremacy’s meaning-making machine. It has told the masses who to alienate and dehumanize, who to award, and why. What Suparak has mapped—through the miscategorizing, misclassifying, the white fantasy of the Other—is the algorithm flourishing. The fantasy of Asianness in science fiction is designating marginalization and racism. It doesn’t invent oddness, nor is it art.
And what is odd? As someone who loves absurdity in art and storytelling, I tend to notice that oddness occurs when something subverts the norm. Oddness unlocks newness. This is why I don’t find the act of chinoiserie or marginalization odd at all. It’s expected. It’s all too elementary, under researched, and uninformed to be labeled as wit or an inventive future. It’s hardly about inclusivity. It’s like that mean girl who invites outcasts to her party just to make fun of them. Or like a slapstick joke where the punchline is said in an Asian accent, and that’s funny simply because it’s othering.
For science fiction, it’s archaic, not futuristic.
I know what it feels like to be reduced to a prop, given the rise of many empty diversity initiatives these days. Though the normative mainstream renders Othered bodies invisible, as Russell pointed out, Suparak’s presentation confronted me with something more sinister: Asian genocide.
It’s not a coincidence you don’t see Asians in sci-fi films. Take for instance, the movie’s lead, Ke Huy Quan, who once was in Indiana Jones as a child in the 1980s. While his peers were auditioning twice a week, he wouldn’t even receive calls for auditions. His screen disappearance was not from any tragedy, but being sidelined from Hollywood as an Asian actor. It took him several decades to resume acting as Waymond Wang, at fifty-one. This phenomenon is rather a gradual effect of discrimination, by intentional omission, also known as Asian Invisibility.
“Asians stay out of the center of the frame, out of the focus of the lens,” says Suparak.
Yellowface, from Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in a Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha (2015) to Hugo Weaving in that nightmarish face prosthetic in Cloud Atlas (2012), white actors playing an Asian person is only the tip of the iceberg. The linguistic isolation that is highlighted by Beaubeirdra and Wang’s interaction can be seen as minuscule, of no importance, even. However, the real life consequences of marginalization are beyond rudeness and hurt feelings: they can incite bullying and violence––just take a look at the anti-Asian hate crimes which, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, has increased by 339% in 2021. When the cinema indulges in othering and dehumanization as norm, as Suparak has revealed, it fuels the algorithm of white supremacy. Is it any wonder that a group of people can go extinct when they were deemed so expendable in the first place?
And precisely because of this, Daniels reframes Evelyn Wang not just at the center of the film, but the universe. In fact, Daniels shot Everything Everywhere in various frames: from action’s 1.85 aspect ratio to drama’s 2.35. This cinematic genre-crossing contributes to the logic of the multiverse. Why not have Evelyn Wang as a star of every movie, every genre? Keeping the Wang family centered is a defiance to traditional and archaic cinema that keeps Asians out of frame.
As someone who has made art and written about anti-Asian racism I want to stop retraumatizing myself through offensive media, and then try to explain it in a nice or palatable way. I’m tired of explaining the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, the Bamboo Ceiling, and White Sexual Imperialism (please look up all three). I want to retire from this role of being the Magical Minority in real life, the trope that people of color only exist to aid a more privileged white person. For once, in this universe—not in a galaxy far, far away—I just want to ruminate about something I enjoy by being given something to enjoy.
What I like about Asian Futures, Without Asians is that it didn’t miss: it was meticulously curated and combed over—every name, pronunciation, artifact, fabric, statue, pattern, and possible speculation. White filmmakers, you designated all this racist stuff out there in the universe—about us, about our sisters and brothers—and Suparak isn’t here to tiptoe around it for your comfort.
Everything Everywhere also hit its target dead-on. I didn’t have to see a katana sword behind an IRS auditor. I don’t have to see red lanterns foreshadowing a brothel. Instead, the red lanterns imply what they always did in Asian cultures: a mark of a holiday celebration and a likely karaoke session that follows.
It was as if Everything Everywhere took all the things that make sci-fi films insufferable and racist for Asian people, and banished them to another universe. Asian Futures, Without Asians showed us a map of where they were embedded, awaiting their destruction. In their own way, both are defiant, which made it cathartic, brilliant.
So, I appreciate the freakishly long hotdog fingers. I loved the drama of Wang’s family dynamic, the miscommunications, and sapphic agony. Daniels’s choice to use practical effects over CGI: excellent. The difference in fighting styles, from wrestling to martial arts: so good. I went googly-eyed for the googly eyes, a marketing symbol of this movie, and maybe a little watery-eyed from the story’s intergenerational healing.
This movie unlocks a different level of sci-fi film for me, and I hope it does for the history of science fiction, too. Beyond the faulty algorithm, both Daniels and Suparak point us to the future that may be odd for some, and a long time coming for so many. As far as I can see, our everyday heroine Evelyn Wang is the future, and the future is now.
We’re here because of you.
By becoming a monthly subscriber or making a gift of your choosing, you’re directly helping the Variable West team build a stronger, more resilient and diverse West Coast art world. Your support makes it all possible!
Make a one time or recurring gift