I don’t remember the last time I said, “I love you” to my parents. In fact, I don’t think they’ve said that to me much either in the 30-something years of my existence.
For a Chinese Singaporean family, this is hardly out of the ordinary. Our affection for each other is mostly communicated through sharing food at mealtimes or through questions about how work has been.
But there’s another way that my parents—and grandparents, aunties, and uncles, for that matter—express affection for me: through biting, negatively framed opinions that hit you like a punch in the gut.
You’ve got more white hair now. You put on weight. You look so tired. (There’s also the all-encompassing “Aiyoh!” which usually conveys a mix of disappointment, disapproval, worry, and concern all at the same time.)
That is why, when watching Everything Everywhere All at Once at home one Friday evening, I cringe-laughed when the protagonist Evelyn Wang blurts this line out to her daughter Joy early in the film: “You have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.”
Such judgmental comments have become a tried-and-true method of communicating care and concern, bypassing anything gushy or sentimental. To be clear, this is not a condoning of verbal abuse, which exerts manipulative control over another. I speak of the pessimistic, unsympathetic sentiments that often color speech in a Chinese family.
Over the years, I’ve deflected remarks like these by laughing or shrugging them off rather than allowing them to take root. As I tell my husband when similar phrases roll off my tongue, these are simply words of “endearment.”
I used to view this inability to articulate “I love you” to one another in a Chinese family as a deficiency. Lately, I’ve come to recognize how love, even when it isn’t verbally expressed, is present in silence.
Remarks like the one Evelyn makes to Joy sting. But even without saying, “I love you,” Evelyn’s love for her family lingers in what is left unsaid—in the gaps between words and worlds, and in the silence that hangs suspended in midair. (Caution: spoilers abound.)
Threading the spaces in between
Delightfully disorienting and intellectually absorbing, Everything Everywhere All at Once centers on Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant and laundromat owner who “verse jumps” across the multiverse to save it from crumbling into nihilistic oblivion.
Since its March 2022 premiere, the film has swept up countless awards from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes. It’s also garnered 11 Oscar nods, including a best actress nomination for Michelle Yeoh, who plays the stubbornly strong-willed Evelyn; a best actor nomination for Ke Huy Quan, who plays Waymond, her unassuming husband; and best supporting actress nominations for Stephanie Hsu (Joy) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Deirdre Beaudeirdre, their no-nonsense tax auditor).
While there are instances of violence, sexual references, and coarse language throughout, its depiction of family dynamics is, in my view, its greatest attraction and strength. For all of Evelyn’s grandiose escapades in the multiverse, the one thing she struggles to achieve is authentic connection with her family members. With her husband, Waymond, she is brusque and dismissive. With her daughter Joy, she lapses into harsh, prickly statements.
This gulf between Evelyn and her family members grows throughout the film. It’s a silent, stealthy phenomenon that creeps against the endless cacophony of noise and activity, and becomes ironically evident when Waymond assures Evelyn that her father, Gong Gong, will see them as a “happy family.”
Reality is anything but happy for the Wangs, as the film goes to show.
Evelyn is a disengaged entity, always moving but never actually getting anywhere. She deftly slips in and out of conversations about Gong Gong’s birthday, the Chinese New Year party, whether Joy’s girlfriend Becky can attend, the taxes, and the missing bag of freshly laundered clothing.
Everything, everywhere, seems broken and out of sync in the first 10 minutes of the film. And it only gets worse when the eerily grinning Jobu Tupaki—Joy’s alt-persona from the Alphaverse—appears on screen, making mayhem and reveling in it.
Evelyn soon learns about Jobu’s genesis. In one universe, Evelyn is a brilliant scientist who pushes her daughter’s verse-jumping abilities to the point that it has “fractured” her and given her the power to be “an agent of chaos” in every single universe.
“You’ve been feeling it too, haven’t you? Something is off,” Waymond from the Alphaverse tells Evelyn.
“How can we get back?” is Evelyn’s heartfelt response.
The film’s masterful depiction of generational trauma exposes a dissonance that’s buried deep, always there but never addressed head-on, in the quintessential Chinese family. In everyday life, Evelyn is filial to her father, but in her flashbacks, the memory of Gong Gong telling her, “You are not my daughter anymore” surfaces repeatedly.
When words become weapons and deathly silence consumes us, how do we ever get back?
Evelyn’s question sums up the core of humanity’s cry, which has echoed throughout the pages of Scripture. The Christian heart throbs with a yearning within for our relationship with God to be made whole and right. Like Evelyn, we may wonder: How do we return to an edenic existence which offers an opportunity to walk with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8) and fight against a temptation to float aimlessly in an existentialist world in which nothing ever seems to matter?
The answer, for Evelyn, lies in becoming as fractured as Jobu is. Acquiring the ability to exist everywhere all at once means that Evelyn may be able to save her daughter Joy from getting sucked into the Everything Bagel, a whirling, amped-up version of a black hole that holds both horror and allure in its totality.
Evelyn never says she does this because she loves Joy. Yet there is possibly no other reason as strong, and no other emotion as enduring, as the love a mother has for her child. “Stop calling me Evelyn. I. Am. Your. Mother,” she says through gritted teeth, gripping Jobu in a tight hug as the Bagel threatens to engulf her.
Beneath this assertion of her role as Joy’s mother, which many a Chinese child has undoubtedly been at the receiving end of, an underlying message resonates and says more than words ever can: I. Love. You.
Nevertheless, Evelyn’s love is limited in scope and power. It is only hinted at through caustic observations or self-determining statements. (Ironically, the only person Evelyn says “I love you” to is Deirdre, the auditor.)
As believers, we look to the Bible, which abounds with verbal proclamations of God’s covenantal love for us. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:3). “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,” he says of himself to Moses (Ex. 34:6).
But God’s love exists—and I dare say persists—in silence too.
Encountering a ‘luminous darkness’
Silence is often problematized in film and in Scripture. In cinematic form, silence often serves a particular purpose. It can alienate just as well as it can illuminate.
I contend that Scripture does likewise, in that silence is one of the ways God speaks and communicates his love, inasmuch as it might convey a sense of separation from him.
I used to think that silence on the part of God displayed his absence. I’m not so convinced anymore. Surely God’s hesed, the Hebrew word we understand as loyal love, steadfast love, or loving-kindness, goes beyond words and cannot be contained or defined only by verbal demonstrations?
Theologians call this the via negativa (Latin for “way of negation”), or apophatic theology. This approach recognizes that God has revealed himself to us but also that human language is ultimately incapable of describing God.
To know God apophatically is to know that God is forever and fully unknowable. No human concept or construct can fully define who God is and what his love is or is not. In this way, our experience of God’s silence may not always construe his perceived absence. Rather, his silence might be the very sign and marker of his presence.
Fourth-century Cappadocian church father Gregory of Nyssa privileged this approach to knowing God. In The Life of Moses, he writes, “For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God.”
The Everything Bagel is a kind of via negativa itself. It lies just beyond Evelyn’s world of comprehension, pulling everything in its sphere of influence toward a not-knowing, turning them inside out and upside down until all matter and significance are lost.
Evelyn’s character reflects a descent into apophatic unknowability as well. She verse-jumps to the point that she seems to spin out of control and lose her sense of self, even though she has acquired the power to be every Evelyn that exists across the multiverse and harness their skill sets in fighting Jobu.
“That moment when Evelyn is screaming, and she’s feeling everything, and she’s completely unmoored and lost, that is the experience of losing God,” said Daniel Kwan, one of the film’s writer-directors who grew up evangelical before leaving the Christian faith in his 20s.
But where Evelyn, the Bagel, and Kwan are inclined to deteriorate into abject nothingness, a via negativa that is grounded in the silence of God and his hesed is an ascent toward a deeper intimacy with him.
Inhabiting the silence of God is akin to what Gregory calls a “luminous darkness.” We wrestle with God’s unknowability, experiencing the agonizing distance from God that silence so often brings while also recognizing that he is present in this felt absence. This is “the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge,” Gregory says.
As contradictory as it might sound, “a luminous darkness is one filled with God’s presence, and by faith, the soul can begin to perceive God in darkness,” writes Baylor University patristics and historical theology professor D. H. Williams.
Through this via negativa, perhaps our view of what God’s silence constitutes might be changed ever so slightly. Perhaps it might lead to a clearer picture of his hesed, leading us to declare as the psalmist does: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” (Ps. 62:1, ESV)
An exchange between Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues and the voice of Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence illustrates the depth of God’s hesed, which is both achingly absent and unspeakably present. Father Rodrigues prays wordlessly while his voiceover says: “Lord, I fought against your silence.”
“I suffered beside you. I was never silent,” Jesus responds, also in a voiceover.
“But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done … speaks of him,” Rodrigues realizes. “It was in the silence that I heard your voice.”
When silence begets love
Everything Everywhere All at Once also includes a scene in a similar vein to Silence. Evelyn and Jobu have become two gray rocks in a dry desert landscape that is inhospitable to living, breathing things. There is no audible dialogue, only text unfurling onscreen to simulate a conversation between the two.
In this space devoid of verbal discourse, Evelyn and Jobu have their first proper conversation in the film, to the point that both rocks even start laughing together. Comic relief aside, this scene is one of the most heartwarming moments in the film because it shows that silence is hospitable to love.
Silence is a welcome interruption in a family that speaks over, or at, each other like the Wangs in the film do. Silence plays a transformative role in a family that finds itself predicated toward self-annihilating despair when it ushers in a quiet, companionable hush, even if everything is still a mess.
Despite the chasm that exists between generations, whether through unresolved generational trauma or a lack of affectionate displays, love does take up space in Chinese families that don’t ever say “I love you” like Evelyn’s, and like mine.
The clincher comes at the end of the film when life has returned to some semblance of normalcy and the Wang family is once again trying to get their taxes done. At the IRS building, Evelyn suddenly kisses Waymond. Spontaneously. In broad daylight. And in public.
Words, clearly, are inadequate here.
An experience of not-aloneness
Everything Everywhere All at Once gives voice to the loneliness and isolation common to humanity. It displays this disconnectedness from one another and our desire to overcome it through Evelyn’s riotous adventure in the multiverse. Although it appears to champion nihilism, the film ultimately lifts our gaze from all that fractures and disintegrates our lives to say: Who we are matters. We matter to someone.
This doesn’t negate humanity’s struggle and striving and the silences that remain. What the characters say to one another, even when the entire multiverse is at stake, reflects this poignantly. “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be with you,” Evelyn tells Joy in the laundromat parking lot. “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you,” Waymond says to Evelyn in a divergent universe.
Saying “I love you” to my parents or relatives is still not a habit of mine. Expressions of love, in my family at least, continue to materialize in the form of critical comments and the most mundane questions. But thanks to this film, I’m learning that it’s okay that “I love you” isn’t ever said. I’m learning to see a love that exists beyond words and in the silence.
Divine love is communicated through silence too. God’s hesed remains true and unchanging in the unknowability of it all, and in that I rejoice. While some may regard the via negativa approach as alienating, it provides me with no small comfort to know that he is far beyond any means of human comprehension, and far more present than I may ever realize.
“It’s a good thing you’re not alone,” says Evelyn to Chad, her teppanyaki chef coworker in the Raccacoonie universe. (Sorry, you’ll just have to watch it.) I’m glad this remains true for all of us who dwell in God’s “luminous darkness.”