Science-Fiction

Michelle Yeoh is Everything

Sachin Hingoo kicks off this year’s Switcheroo Month at the Gutter. This year the Gutter’s editors are writing about reputable art rather than disreputable art for a whole month! Heads up: The following contains minor spoilers for A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) and Paramount’s Star Trek: Discovery.

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I’m cheating a bit in this year’s Switcheroo. We’ve been tasked with writing about reputable art, and I’m writing about Michelle Yeoh, who is eminently reputable in every sense. But it feels like cheating because after seeing the new (also reputable and almost universally-acclaimed since it’s release last week) film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) from esoteric filmmakers Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) I couldn’t imagine that I’d be writing or even thinking about anything else, Switcheroo or no. 

Watching Everything Everywhere All At Once, there’s nothing more entrancing (in a film where every single frame contains something entrancing) than its star, an absolute legend, Michelle Yeoh. The whole film is a showcase for Yeoh in particular, who has been out here doing it since the mid-1980’s, both in her extensive resume of Hong Kong and American action films and, more recently, in non-martial arts roles like Crazy Rich Asians. Another of these breakthrough roles is Yeoh’s incredible turn as Phillipa Georgiou on Star Trek: Discovery, which, like in Everything Everywhere, is actually more than one distinct character that shares a name and not much else. 

In Discovery, Yeoh plays Phillipa Georgiou, captain of the USS Shenzhou. She’s a stern, by-the-book type that has to keep her protege Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in line after she’s been demoted and disgraced for starting a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The maternal chemistry between Phillipa and Michael is something I haven’t seen explored this extensively in a Star Trek series before, and both Yeoh and Martin-Green do the work, in all of their interactions, to make that relationship central to a story that’s ostensibly about alien warfare and spaceship battles (though Phillipa shows early on that she can deftly handle both). But what’s more out of reach for Phillipa is an ability to manage Michael’s rebellious, mutineering, war-provoking teen attitude. Michael is impulsive and prone to emotional reactions that often endanger herself and the crew. Not ideal characteristics for a senior officer on the bridge! But eventually, like many parents, Phillipa realizes that the best way isn’t to “manage” Michael at all, but to let go a bit and try to nurture the genius Michael grows to become, learning hard lessons along the way.  

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Kwan, and Stephany Hsu in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Courtesy of A24

A mother-daughter relationship is very central to Everything Everywhere All At Once too. In that movie, Yeoh’s Evelyn struggles to find commonality with her daughter Joy (an electric Stephanie Hsu) across several alternate realities. Joy, like Discovery’s Michael, is both fiercely rebellious and much more powerful and capable than she realizes. I won’t go into too much detail about it since the movie’s so fresh, but Evelyn’s struggles with Joy really do echo those of Phillipa’s with Michael (and vice versa). Her approach with Joy is similar to Phillipa’s as well, or at least she eventually comes to realize that it has to be because, as in Discovery, the fate of every universe may be at stake.

Yeoh has to play multiple subtly-different roles in Everything Everywhere –so many that I lost count–including a strikingly idealized version of herself. In a movie that explores disparate identities, perhaps the most compelling is the one that’s closest to Yeoh’s real life and career. In this reality, Yeoh’s Evelyn is given a glimpse at what her life would have become had she not settled down with her hapless husband Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan). Instead of running away to an America that constantly belittles her ambitions, even when it’s to open a humble laundromat, she remains in Hong Kong, trains in kung fu, and becomes a world-renowned martial arts film star. The tone of these scenes makes it feel like you’ve left the theatre and walked into one playing Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000), with all the dramatic flair that comes from that. In this reality, Waymond is changed too, because the Waymond we meet at first wouldn’t ever fit into a Wong Kar-Wai movie. This Waymond is suave and romantic and takes charge in a way that our initial Waymond never is. He’s better for having lost Evelyn, and has to rise to the occasion in order to get her back. Ke Huy Kwan is a revelation in the role, in every way hanging with heavyweights Yeoh, Hsu, and Jamie Lee Curtis. He brings the Waymond character completely to life by showing immense vulnerability. He’s the kind of father and husband you never know you wanted, or wanted to be. Original Waymond comes across as weak and naive, but eventually we see that there’s bravery under all that. Waymond has the kind of emotional strength you don’t often see portrayed–certainly not in action movies. This is a guy who’s willing to put everything on the line and serve his wife divorce papers just to get her to notice him. And in the moments he shows how capable he really is, you sit there in your seat, wishing you could cheer like it’s pro wrestling*.  

Michelle Yeoh as Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Burnham, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Courtesy of Michael Gibson/CBS

Phillipa’s arc on Discovery is very much driven by alternate universes that are similar to the ones in Everything Everywhere All At Once as well. As the USS Shenzou and later, the eponymous USS Discovery teleport into a mirror universe, kind of a Bizarro World where everything in one universe has a twisted analog in another, we’re introduced to mirror Phillipa. This Phillipa allows Yeoh to flex her considerable presence as the violent and merciless, fascist-but-fashionable emperor of the Terran Empire, a twisted version of Star Trek’s pacifistic Federation that rules the galaxy with an iron fist and proclaims human supremacy over alien races. She’s a great, nuanced character that is openly villainous and really just awful to other characters on the show but is allowed to evolve, mostly through her relationships with both Mirror Universe Burnham (an equally-ruthless version of the Michael we’re introduced to at the beginning of the series) and Regular Burnham.  Once again, it’s family that saves us.

Kwan and Scheinert put their influences for Everything Everywhere All At Once–which vary from The Matrix (1999), the films of Wong Kar-Wai, Ratatouille (2007), Michael Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and so many, many more–front and centre, and Yeoh has to switch hats in demanding fashion in order to keep up. Even for one of the most accomplished and versatile actors in the world, Yeoh’s ability to switch between different fighting styles in an action sequence while seamlessly juggling a dramatic or a wildly comedic scene within the span of seconds is one of her biggest accomplishments in this film. She has a way of making her vulnerability, a desperate wail of “I love you” or a single, barely-audible waver in her voice, into a kind of weapon that she uses against the many antagonists she has in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Because of the nature of the film and it’s approach to realities that are incredibly fluid, alignments and motivations can change on a dime. This happens several times in nearly every scene, and every time we’re made to feel as an audience what Evelyn’s feeling (confusion and disorientation, mostly) because Yeoh’s performance can’t help but make us want to empathize and root for her. 

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Kwan, Daniels at a premiere of Everything Everywhere All At Once. Image courtesy of Daniel Kwan (@dunkwun)

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of movie that makes you stop dead. You won’t walk out of the theatre, or close the tab on whatever streaming service it ends up on, and forget about it any time soon. It forces you to reconsider everything you thought you know about everything from hot dogs, to buttplugs, to bagels. It’s so rich with visual flair, emotion, with the Michelle Yeoh-ness of it all, that it’s both overwhelming and impossible not to want to dive into again. I don’t think there’s a real comparison for it in cinema right now or ever. It makes compelling cases both for a universe where nothing matters, and one where absolutely everything does, like it does on Star Trek: Discovery. I think it even allows those ideas to coexist, somehow. It does this by filtering everything through a lens called Michelle Yeoh. We come to realize through Yeoh’s strong, weak, measured, impulsive, vicious, loving performances that everything we might try to hold onto–family, duty, love–may be fleeting, but that’s what makes them valuable. In this, or any universe.

*Sometimes Everything Everywhere All At Once is, in fact, pro wrestling.

**The USS Discovery is the only ship in the Federation, possibly the universe, that travels using the mycelial network, a series of fungal pathways through the universe that’s accessed by the ship’s “Spore Drive” which can only be navigated by a couple of people. Have you ever done mushrooms and forgotten how you got somewhere? It’s basically that.

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Everything Everywhere All At Once is currently in limited release across North America, and will be released wider this Friday April 8, 2022 from A24.

Sachin Hingoo is currently trapped in the mycelial network. Send help!

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