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The Greatest Performance of All Time: Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

6 min read

There's no one like . In a career spanning nearly 40 years, the acting veteran is an icon of film and television. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Star Trek: Discovery are some of the highlights for an actress who broke ground with death-defying stunts with Jackie Chan, gave us poise and grace in her dramatic roles, and sharp wit from her comedic turns. But if there's a definitive role that sums up her legacy, that accolade rightly belongs to .

It's incredible that Everything Everywhere marks Yeoh's first leading role in a Hollywood film, yet sadly not surprising. It marks an indefensible trend in Hollywood where Asian actors have been forced to navigate through stereotypical representation of Asian cultures, token supporting roles, or endured racially offensive portrayals of ‘yellowface' (e.g., Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's) or mischaracterisation (Bruce Lee in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). There's still plenty to do to shift the discourse beyond performative gestures and allyship.

Despite the success of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell showing how films of their ilk can be financially successful and culturally rewarding, Hollywood has moved at a snail's pace to provide meaningful change. But there is a beautiful analogy summed up by Yeoh's magnetic presence in Everything Everywhere, which places Hollywood's lack of inclusivity to shame. In a film that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary, there is advocacy within her performance in playing a reluctant hero who experiences a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. Through the power of the multiverse, she's able to see herself in different multifaceted forms, allowing her character to feel the warmth, potential and value her gift brings to the world. It's a life-affirming message that highlights why representation matters. Considering Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's love letter to cinema is now A24's highest-grossing film, it's Yeoh who's having the last laugh.

The film throws us into Evelyn Wang's (Michelle Yeoh) crumbling life of tax receipts and responsibilities. Amid organising a Chinese New Year's Party, her laundromat business is under the scrutinous eye of three-time auditor of the year Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). Her relationship with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) – who has a penchant for sticking googly eyes all over objects – is on the verge of collapsing. She's at odds with her lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), a generational conflict of emotions that leaves the latter questioning her existence and place in the world. Then there's Gong Gong (James Hong), her disapproving elderly father who disowned her for marrying Waymond and moving to America. Adding to a list of problems upon her weighted shoulders, she has to take care of him, making Evelyn's displacement from the world more hurtful, knowing her father wished for a boy instead of her.

Photo courtesy of A24

Everything Everywhere is remarkably personable given the grand science fiction overtures to which it pays its respects. The pressure cooker environment that Evelyn finds herself in is exacerbated by her own feelings of unfulfilled dreams and expectations which have shackled her to reality. It's no surprise she finds herself momentarily disconnecting. In one scene, she stares with childlike innocence at the laundromat's TV screen as she watches a fantasy of images of happiness in dancing form, noting how easy it is to drown out the pain with something so digestible and consumable. It takes stock of how relatable these trials and tribulations of womanhood are, where Evelyn's value is deemed inconsequential and a waste of potential in an unfair society with so many expectations on what women should do, and how they should act and behave.

Her life begins to unravel on a trip to the IRS when she's visited by Alpha-verse Waymond, who tells her that the fate of the multiverse rests upon her shoulders. The fun and ingenuity of the concept allows Yeoh to play within herself, disbelieving anything he says or rationalising how anything can be more important than the fate of her tax auditing!

The beauty behind Yeoh's transformative performance is getting the audience to root for Evelyn's self-worth and value, a deeper level reminder that women can do anything, forming parallels to Yeoh's real-life talent. Written specifically with Yeoh in mind, craft a script as a meta-tribute to the actress, making its on-screen events incredibly enjoyable and satisfying. The multiverse provides Yeoh with a freedom to showcase her talents while Evelyn revels in an escape from real-life, unlocking the skills of an opera singer, a hibachi chef, a kung-fu master and even a universe featuring hot dog hands. And in each verse-jump, she battles to save the world from the evil force of Jobu Tupaki.

But the fun – and Evelyn's growth – doesn't stop there. The film's pivotal moment rests in the aftermath when she Manga-style battles the alt-verse version of Deirdre. Having accessed the multiverse where she didn't marry Waymond, she would have been a martial arts superstar, famously adored by many with a glamorous life so far removed from a laundromat. Her life would have been “beautiful”, as she comically puts it. Her indifference towards present-verse Waymond is one of the few hints the film throws into context because of how superficial the emotion is. Evelyn's life may have become significantly better, exploring the paths not taken, but it also doesn't solve the problems she's inherently scarred with.

The results are deeply philosophical and profound. It speaks volumes when Evelyn's expectations are driven by a legacy of trauma, repeating the same generational mistakes within families that refuses to break a vicious cycle of pain, hurt and emotional discontent. Yeoh doesn't get to play Evelyn as a perfect character, nor does she play a superhero. Her character is flawed, and most importantly, is allowed to be. Evelyn's contrasting battles with her family, as they all impersonate their alt-versions of themselves, are default mechanisms to survive a cruel world fuelled on hate and mistrust, and her lack of attention in her relationships has led to mistakes. What Yeoh creates is undeniably human.

Photo courtesy of A24

In Evelyn's mind-blowing ascendancy to ‘The One', it's Yeoh at her most badass, twirling an armoured shield with poetic balance and grace as she fights off verse-jumping enemies. It's a meaningful moment as she finally accepts letting go of the destructive barriers that held her back and fight for the one thing that makes sense in a world full of nonsense – her family. The evolution is an endearing commentary on relationships and their ensuing repair.

You witness the immense joy Yeoh exhibits in playing a role that brings out the playfulness in her comedy, the compassionate depth in her drama, and her action-gravitas all in one role. She builds empathy where there is despair and finds heart in the film's soul. It's the stuff that actors dream of. No matter how wild and hilariously chaotic Daniels' script gets (with Raccacoonie being the alt-Disney fantasy you didn't realise you needed), Yeoh remains a constant presence, establishing a masterful range of depth and nuance.

Hsu's brilliant work as Joy enhances Yeoh's outstanding performance, as the antagonistic push and pull of their on-screen relationship only relay Joy's desperation for attention and cries for help. It typifies the need to grow apart while understanding the different lives they share can be jeopardised by a failure to communicate with each other. Joy's disconnect from reality is indicative of a generation who feels anxious and isolated, where “nothing matters” is a world absent of hope, love and kindness. Yeoh's care for the details understands that feeling, knowing the burdens that rest upon a young generation who live in spaces where they're picking up the pieces from the previous one. Enabling her acting to cross the divide, her role model quality ushers Hsu as an upcoming Asian star of the future.

Everything Everywhere All at Once serves as a culmination of Yeoh's career. To see it so passionately celebrated is not only a testament to her as a performer, but to the film's proclamation of Yeoh finally getting her due in Hollywood. For the legendary actress, it's a showcase piece richly deserving of her talents and long may that continue.