meIt’s not every day that Chinese society – or Asians for that matter – see their stories written largely in Hollywood. You have the Joy Luck Club in 1993, and more than 20 years later, Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi, Turning Red, The Farewell and Minari. All great movies. More recently, Everything Everywhere at once — by duo Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — has been released in the US to critical acclaim, but the strength here is not in the blockbuster treatment that Asian stories have taken advantage of lately but in what it says about the experience and philosophies of Chinese immigrants from faraway regions.
Far from the madness of the multiverse, this film distills East Asian philosophies like never before. While it may seem that the great stories of Asian immigrant families build upon a cornerstone of intergenerational trauma, it is the heart of Buddhist and Daoist thought that makes everything everywhere truly wonderful.
The bread and the googly eye are two major icons of this movie. Not only is it a surprisingly appropriate and humorous theme for yin and yang, but at the same time it explores the core concepts of Buddhist philosophy. To sum up over 2000 years of Buddhist discourse – all things are believed to exist only through our awareness of said things. Therefore, they are inherently meaningless. It is empty. This is expressed in the multiverse of the movie. As its characters gain the ability to manifest all of their life potential, they quickly realize that when every phenomenon and concept you can think of are blended together, it all becomes a jumble of meaningless nothingness – on top of a cake. It loses its intrinsic value.
This is where the antithesis of bread – googly eye – comes in. It says that in the realm of meaningless emptiness, there is value, joy, and love where we choose to create it. Through a googly-eyed lens, we gain the power to control the infinite void. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the stupid husband of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), reminds her through simple kindness that there is value where you want to create it and it means where you choose to see it. In Buddhist thought, our empathy is what establishes us—makes us human—and emptiness is not a sign of nihilism and despair, but an opportunity to let go of the bad and cherish the good. At least, in very simple terms, that’s what Buddhism aims for.
Unfortunately, Western audiences often miss these points, and even the positive, near-wall-to-wall coverage of this film barely touches its philosophical significance.
In a quirky way, it’s quite a symbol of Hollywood’s rejection of Asian achievements and stories. One of the film’s stars, James Hong, who plays a grandfather who is referred to only as Gong Gong, is a Hollywood veteran, with over 650 acting credits under his belt. But it wasn’t until this year that the Hollywood Walk of Fame star received a GoFundMe campaign launched by fellow Asian-American actor Daniel Dae Kim.
In fact, you might recognize one of the movie’s stars, Ke Huy Quan, if he was 30 years younger. In the 1980s, Quan was best known for being the Indiana Jones Short Round companion and then went on to play Data in The Goonies. The former child actor told People he was “waiting for the phone to ring” but never did. With few roles for Asian actors at the time, he decided to stay away from acting. Only after watching Crazy Rich Asians did he realize he wanted to get back in the game.
It’s not hard to find overt examples of Asians who ignore the media, whether it’s Marlon Brando, the yellow-faced Mickey Rooney or Kunal Nayyar being the subject of many of the racial jokes in The Big Bang Theory. But the most accurate examples are those that sum up Asian excellence when it is at its highest. Farewell and Minari are their victims, categorized as foreign language films despite their production and representation in America. Back in the black and white era, the role of Anna Mae Wong was turned down due to the racist laws of the time.
In addition to being entertaining, or even allowing us an insight into the psyche of millions of people around the world, stories of Asian immigrants are valuable if you interact with them. With hate crimes on the rise in Asia in the United States and tensions between China and Australia inflamed, understanding Asian psychology has never been more important. And with all the uncertainties in this world, it helps to widen our philosophical appetite if we value the people and things around us in a different light.