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Everything Everywhere All At OncePowered by Reelgood
When Ke Huy Quan appeared in the most hotly anticipated film of my sixth grade existence, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I was horrified by his Short Round character. The day after its opening in late May of 1984, I knew my friends were going to want me to do the accent, to approximate the enthusiasm when I ran the lines. I knew this because John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles had opened earlier that month, and the week following it was full of my friends slanting their eyes and yelling “What’s happening, hot stuff?” at me in their best Long Duk Dong. I wasn’t being bullied; I was being recognized as a reflection of the only Asian representation available in American popular culture. Prior to that 1984 season of Hollywood giving, the most common salvos at me from friend and foe alike were Bruce Lee’s yips and some variation of “ancient Chinese secret.” In the pre-Internet before a’la carte viewing habits, the monoculture provided precious little relief.
Given the choice of playing along or protesting, I played along. I’m great at the Asian accent as minstrelry. When I do it for my white friends even today, it never fails to bring a laugh. Assimilation was the goal, and even though I could never hide my physical difference, I could at least laugh along with their enthusiastic recognition of my perpetual alienness. I think I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I hadn’t dedicated all of my energy into being very good at English, my second language. If I couldn’t pass the sight test, perhaps I could pass the reading one. Humor branded me as not one of those “sensitive” Asians, as a guy who wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable about asking where I was really from, and where I’m really from is Golden, Colorado. Golden is a mining town, and to this day and despite its profound gentrification, it still has a giant wooden banner spanning its main street that says “Howdy Folks!” I have spent most of my life trying to divorce myself from my parents’ culture. They’re both dead now and they went before I was strong and stable enough to repair any of the damage I did. Honestly, none of us ever had the emotional language to do the work.
The next year, Quan played Data in Richard Donner’s beloved (but never by me) The Goonies. He’s an inventor in it, the comic relief of our gang of pint-sized adventurers, and the line I was asked to parrot from it was the particular way he shouted “boobytraps” during his various slapstick Rube Goldberg introductions. I carried resentment of these characters with me into adulthood. They amplified my feelings of otherness. I grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker in a culture that could only see Asian men as sexless sidekicks or (also sexless) kung fu masters: the socially non-threatening nature of them, of me, a template applied since the Chinese Exclusion Act and the forcing of Asian men into traditionally-feminized occupations after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The construction of Asians as a “model minority” after laws restricting Chinese immigration were loosened in 1968 further refined the image of us as obedient, industrious, and non-competitive for sexual access. Studies as late as 2022 has confirmed that Asian men are seen as the least desirable group in online dating sites. It was a strategy to pit Asian immigrants against African-Americans and it has, for the most part, worked.
I blamed Quan, Gedde Watanabe, Pat Morita, and any number of other Asian-American actors for perpetuating these constructed stereotypes. The internalized racism I carry has made me despise the way I look, the way I sound, the way I communicate. These men drew too much attention to the things I hated about myself and, of course, as the only examples of Asian-American men in the mainstream, I was immediately associated with them. When Asian-American basketball player Jeremy Lin set the world on fire for a little while with the New York Knicks, Ben & Jerry’s made a special ice cream to honor him, the chief ingredient being a fortune cookie. We are helpless to the bias we carry, unexamined, with us. The problem with limited, stereotypical representation in films written by, produced, and directed by white men, is there is no commensurately popular corrective in the all of the well of Tinseltown’s century of images. I tried to run from Asian associations. I never dated Asian women. I avoided making Asian friends. It’s harder after all for two to hide than one. And then, as an adult, married with children, I watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom again with my wife and, with her help, began to see him, and Quan, differently. I began to see myself differently.
The main storyline of 2022’s award’s season is a run of accolades for Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Michelle Yeoh, an ethnically Chinese, Malaysian-born actor and Ke Huy Quan, an ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese-born actor. After Quan’s family fled Vietnam in 1978, they found themselves after a year scattered in refugee camps, reunited in Alhambra, California. He was discovered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, spent time in a couple of American sitcoms, and when adulthood hit, it took his career before the camera (as it does with so many child actors). But I think Quan’s story is more complicated than his aging out of roles — a complication his comeback in Everything, Everywhere All At Once addresses when his character, laundromat owner Waymond, says that he knows his wife Evelyn (Yeoh) thinks he’s an ineffectual Pollyanna, but that it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and commitment to be upbeat in the face of all the world’s devastating disappointments. Quan’s persona appears to be who he is: earnest in a culture that values caginess; vulnerable in a culture that values invulnerability. It’s one thing to wear your heart on your sleeve as a kid, it’s another to do it when you’ve grown. Emotional depth and complexity doesn’t fit into the Asian-American pop mold. Quan is a human being when all that was permissible was a high kick and a quip delivered in obsequious pidgin.
What my wife helped me to see was that Short Round wasn’t a joke played at the expense of Asian-Americans. I began to see in Short Round the only morally-consistent and admirable character in a pitch-black film maudit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a meticulously-timed clockwork of a picture, a true marvel of action filmmaking by a man, Spielberg, who has never had and may never have an equal in this pursuit, that seems explicitly designed to make you feel miserable. It’s vile, even beyond its regressive colonialism and open misogyny, its images are horrific. Unspeakable. By itself, it inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating the better to warn future viewers of similar entertainments too dark to pass as appropriate, but too potentially profitable and driven by too powerful of men, to be limited by an “R.” And through it all is Shorty who never flags in his love for an adoptive father (Indiana Jones) who abandons him in the timeline between this and the later-set Raiders of the Lost Ark; who is immune to the malign influence of the blood cult his party has infiltrated; who finds joy throughout in a card game, an elephant ride, a sense of belonging in a world in which he’s been orphaned and left to his own devices on the streets of Shanghai, 1935. Short Round is that rarity of a homegrown Asian-American hero, embodied with the full force of Quan’s kindness, charisma, and energy.
Of the many incredible things managed by Everything Everywhere All At Once, it is this reassessment of Quan in the popular conversation that is perhaps the most incredible. Waymond is a literally-multifaceted character given a depth of complexity rare in any pursuit but almost unheard of for an Asian-American actor. Quan’s overriding quality is his genuineness, his comfort with himself after so long after being cast off into the Hollywood wilderness. He cries during his acceptance speeches and he talks about decades of failures as part of the journey that has brought him to this time and place. I wasn’t raised to be comfortable with any of it. I was punished when I cried, and my parents spun tales of my accomplishments until the tidal wave of my failures quotidian and spectacular overwhelmed their narrative. I have lived my life in fear of being found out: as Chinese, perhaps, but really as stupid and ugly and not good enough and incapable of ever being so. But here’s Quan, the same as he was when he was a kid, embodying all of the qualities that actually matter in the pursuit of a life well-lived: love for and faith in the people in your life who see you, and the candid recollection of the journey it took to get you to a place where you can finally see yourself. It’s not the awards that matter, it’s only this. I used to be embarrassed to be set against Quan in some way; now I can’t imagine a kinder comparison. I’m old, but I’m teachable. Maybe there’s hope for us, yet.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.