Generational Trauma and Queer Identity: Saving Face and "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once"
Last week, I finally sat down to watch Everything, Everywhere, All at Once—the latest comedy-drama from Daniels directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Based on reviews I heard from my friends beforehand, I knew it wasn’t going to be a passive watch. And as expected, this movie demanded my full attention, beginning to end.
From stunning imagery to dynamic cinematography, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is jam-packed with bizarre moments and genre-bending twists that intertwine to create an absurdist tour-de-force that is both visually captivating and thematically rich. I was afraid if I blinked for too long, I might miss a witty callback or new piece of information crucial to understanding the plotline. In many ways, it was like no movie I’d seen before.
But as unique as this film is stylistically, there’s an all-too familiar question that it poses, one that seems to be increasingly emerging in pop-culture media: What kind of role does generational trauma play in the queer experience?
During my watch, I was reminded of another film I saw earlier this year: Alice Wu’s Saving Face, a 2004 rom com that follows Wil, a young Chinese-American doctor struggling to maintain her budding lesbian relationship while living with her widowed mother who is dealing with her own personal issues after becoming pregnant and consequently being shunned by her parents and community.
Aside from being authentic examples of Asian representation in film, there are a number of striking parallels between the two movies. Of course, Saving Face does not involve a multiversal war, but like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, it features a queer Asian daughter seeking acceptance from her mother who is strained by familial and cultural pressures. In this regard, I consider the two to be conceptual companion films—both follow a mother-daughter story arc with Saving Face taking place from the daughter’s perspective and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once providing the accompanying and equally compelling perspective of the mother.
Yet another similarity is the presence of immigrant grandparents—authoritarian patriarchs deeply concerned with their own moral reputation at the cost of their children and grandchildren’s freedom. So often, it’s the daughters who must sacrifice their happiness for the sake of honor. We see this with Wil in Saving Face as she jeopardizes her first meaningful relationship in an effort to remain in her family’s favor. For Joy, the daughter of Evelyn in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, her inner turmoil over her mother’s constant disapproval culminates in her declaration that “nothing matters.” It isn’t a villain’s cold and apathetic tagline, but a daughter’s self-preserving cry for acceptance.
This is a sentiment that I think resonates with queer children of immigrants in particular. Being part of a culture with traditionally conservative values that conflict with contemporary notions of queerness makes the act of coming out not only a matter of potentially losing the respect of your community, but a disconnection from your heritage. And when you’ve been ingrained with a deep-seated sense of familial responsibility, there is the added guilt and shame of feeling like you’ve failed your loved ones.
For queer people, this is what makes acceptance so crucial. And as Evelyn’s character realizes at the end of her film, there is an important distinction between tolerance of a child’s identity and true acceptance. Both films find brilliant resolutions to this conflict in their final scenes: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once suggests that the “void” that has arisen from a compounding of generational trauma can be reversed through Evelyn and Joy’s mother-daughter camaraderie. In Saving Face, we see Wil’s mother publicly acknowledge her daughter’s queerness, a touching portrayal of motherly support and queer-straight solidarity against societal prejudice. Through their newfound bonds, these characters have broken their generational cycles and can begin to mend the rift between parents and children, ushering in a new tradition of unconditional love that can now be passed down through those same generations.
Sadly, the characters in these films achieve what many queer people can only experience on-screen. But the message of learning to reconcile your identities, embracing queerness while still accepting and engaging with your culture, still stands. So to anyone who resonated with the exploration of generational trauma and queer identity in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: give Saving Face a watch and thank me later.