The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
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It’s kind of weird, isn’t it, that movies are so bad with tech stuff?
The list of movies that are embarrassingly unable to grapple with the way the modern world has embraced things like smartphones and social media is… well, almost all of them so far.
And sure, we’ve all heard the complaints about how cell phones have absolutely ruined horror movies and thrillers, and sure, obviously it’s difficult to make the new international pastimes of sliding into DMs and watching cat videos visually appealing from a cinematic standpoint (Look, respect for keeping costs down, but come on, guys…. Screenlife ain’t it). But if your goal as a filmmaker is to try and tell stories about modern life and how it is lived, none of these things are ignorable. So simply put, sooner or later someone is just going to have to sit down and figure this shit out.
So one of the highest compliments I can pay to Everyphone Everywhere is that it’s one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that gets it right. In terms of stakes, in terms of how these technologies bifurcate our lives, in terms of the petty and not so pretty inconveniences they face.
It understands the assignment, and approaches the problems of making this type of film with a playful eye and a proper sense of human-sized scale. And a lot of mentions of WhatsApp.
The film actually had me from its very opening moment, a monologue from one of our main protagonists, Chung Chit (Endy Chow). A graphic designer, he stares down the camera as he sits on a balcony and gives what feels like a very rehearsed speech about his clever entrepreneurial spirit. His backdrop is the city with a brilliant blue sky, an tableau so perfect it almost seems like he’s been photoshopped into a postcard. But, in the first of the gleeful little nudges director Amos Why employs so deftly, first the sky behind him desaturates as he talks, and then his monologue is interrupted by a text from his wife, reminding him that he’s about to be late for the ferry. He grabs the “camera”, which turns out to be his phone, and rushes off. It’s an impish opening salvo in a film that is going to lean very heavy on such clever touches.
Chung Chit is just one of our three protagonists, all of whom are having their own problems. Raymond (Peter Chan), a recently promoted real estate mogul, discovers his phone was hacked while on on his way to visit a woman named Ana (Rosa Maria Velasco). Once he gets confirmation that he’s locked out of his WhatsApp account, he must go about replacing his phone and letting everybody in his contacts list know what happened. He even makes a pit stop to see his boss, as he seems especially concerned about the potential for blackmail.
Ana, meanwhile, has her suspicions confirmed that her husband has been unfaithful, and is forced to confront some aspects of her life that she’d really rather not examine too closely.
We even spend some brief time with the hacker himself (Henick Chau), as he tries to arrange a paid date with a girl over the app, with negotiations breaking down fairly quickly in a very amusing back and forth. In fact, it is in this scene that the visual wit really makes its presence felt, as Why implements a particular bit of scene staging that has definitely been used in trying to visualize text conversations in movies, but with a clever new twist it’s shocking that no one ever tried out before. We’ve seen the bit where people who are texting each other in different locations appear in the same room, as if having a normal in-person conversation. But to my knowledge, no one has ever gone the further step of having the character appear not as themselves, but at they perceive the other to look: to the hacker, the girl resembles a gorgeous model, and to the girl, the hacker resembles a stereotypical chubby, bespectacled nerd, far from the lanky, floppy haired kid he is in real life.
This is a gambit that Why doesn’t go to particularly often in the film, but when he does it always lands, an imaginative and effective way of visually representing the seemingly insurmountable gap between the digital space and actual reality
But of all the extended cast, it’s Chit who has the least dramatic and yet somehow best subplot in the entire film: in his rush to get out the door in the opening scene, he left his phone at home and now must figure out how to get to his appointment without the actual directions.
Readers, this is the most relatable subplot in the history of cinema.
Chit’s comical quest, trying to borrow phones from strangers, or using the internet on a display phone at a wireless store to try and get into his account only to realize he doesn’t remember his password because it’s autofilled on his phone… this, more than any other movie I can think of, really understands the minor inconveniences of modern technology that wind up feeling major because we’ve given so much of our lives over to this stuff.
It’s probably not a surprise to realize that all these things are connected, and in truth some of the weaker parts of the film are the contrivances of some of the connections. But even complaining about that seems churlish, somehow; the movie is so full of charm and playfulness that I was more than willing to forgive it for any minor missteps (and they were mostly minor). Even as the end credits rolled, the cast revealed more playful notes that I had missed, including a cameo by a world famous director that made me do a double take when I read it.
The pleasures of Everyphone Everywhere, in their own way, are relatively simple. But they are also smart and meaningful. Few films could get away with an emotional climax based around messages on a set of 25-year old Nokias… few films would ever think to try. For all its dramatic ambitions, it finds its highest purchase in a cascade of tiny, familiar moments, and that’s a feat well worth recognizing.