‘EEAAO’ Wasn’t Stephanie Hsu & the Daniels’ First Team-Up
Feb 18, 2023
Long before Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (or, the Daniels) directed Everything Everywhere All at Once, they directed one of their Academy Award-nominated actresses, Stephanie Hsu, on television in a genre-defying piece of cinematic absurdity – Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ Season 1 episode “Grandma And Chill.”
Now if you’re one of the twelve people who’ve yet to see Everything Everywhere All at Once, do yourself a favor and stop what you’re doing. Go watch it. You can come back later. Now that the film has started to make its way across the awards circuit, crushing it pretty much everywhere it shows up, it’s even harder to deny the movie’s magnitude. This neat little universe-jumping dramedy—which very nearly starred Jackie Chan as the lead character until Michelle Yeoh took the reins, thus making it an entirely different picture—is almost impossible not to love. It’s got something for everybody, from tax returns to verse jumping to hot dog fingers, and with it the Daniels crafted a sprawling, ambitious epic comedy whose scale unmatched.
It’s a movie that contains all movies. There’s a bit of the slapstick martial arts choreography that recalls Police Story and other Chan flicks, a little of the genre-blending anarchy of Kill Bill, and some of the brooding cinematic romanticism that nods in the direction of In the Mood for Love. Throughout EEAAO, it’s abundantly clear that Daniels’ cinephelia runs deep. It feels like a love letter to film and to life itself, to living and loving and hurting. Daniels have made something truly unique, and even if it contains the DNA of countless other movies, there are none that can adequately compare to it. If you, like me, have been craving more of that highly-stylized weirdness, you owe it to yourself to watch the aforementioned 2020 episode of the overlooked Comedy Central series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. Directed by the Daniels and featuring Stephanie Hsu, the Season 1 episode “Grandma And Chill” is the perfect watch to scratch that itch left in EEAAO’s absence.
The Daniels Hone Their Directorial Style in “Grandma & Chill”
Image via Comedy Central
When Daniels stepped in to direct an episode of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, the result was (unsurprisingly) one of the best entries from the entire series. In “Grandma & Chill”, Nora (Awkwafina), while bedridden with a cold, is distracted from her Love Island binge to hear a story about how Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) met her husband. If that sounds a little familair, it’s basically the same plot structure as The Princess Bride with a sick “child” being distracted from their illness by a grandparent telling an elaborate story, only here the tale takes the style of a twisty K-drama as Young Grandma (Jamie Chung) is torn between her two loves, Garbage Boy (a perpetually shirtless Simu Liu) and Doc Hottie (Harry Shum Jr.).
The episode toys with the format of the show by indulging in the tropes of Korean dramas infused with an infectious charm. Typically, Nora is the type of unapologetically candid comedy that Broad City pioneered, centering around a twenty-something woman spending her days in New York dreaming of a more extravagant life (inspired by Awkwafina’s own life). When Kwan and Scheinert take over, though, things go off the rails in the best way possible.
What we get isn’t exactly a parody of K-dramas…it’s a little more complex than that. A little weirder, too. There’s definitely undertones of parody there—you’ve got the lavish period sets and costumes, the sociopolitical overtones, the glossy cinematography, and the long stares full of longing (so much longing). It operates on the K-drama signature of filming beautiful people beautifully while navigating a labyrinth of complicated, interweaving plots (“how many goddamn plot twists you got in this story, Grandma?” Norah quips after a quick whip pan cuts away from the nth twist). It’s all gloriously over the top in the best way imaginable.
Kyle Lau’s script is crammed with gags and punchlines, and Daniels bring the jokes to vibrant life by infusing the episode with an absurd and anarchic style that they would later perfect in their awards-sweeping second feature. It breaks the mold set by the show’s prior episodes and spends the next twenty minutes or so shifting from one form to the next. When Shu Shu (Stephanie Hsu) narrates the story of her trip to America, it’s all told with flat cut-out puppets. Later, Grandma recounts her time spent with Doc Hottie as we see them running about in front of a blatantly obvious green screen where the effects utilized are intentionally terrible. After Grandma finishes her story, the episodes ends in a spoof of low-budget music videos. “Grandma & Chill” is one of those rare episodes that stands out as a truly singular entry to the series.
Stephanie Hsu Steals the Show Once Again
Unsurprisingly, whenever Stephanie Hsu shows up in “Grandma & Chill”, she steals the show. She’s a comic presence that knows how to play up her character’s delivery for a laugh. With deadpan delivery, she spews her love for Mao Zedong and stares contemplatively off into the distance, fantasizing about life in the country surrounded by “rural D”. Her performance is magnetic, her energy contagious.
Clearly Hsu did something right here, considering that it’s actually on this episode that Daniels met Hsu. It’s because of her astounding performance that led to her getting an audition for Everything Everywhere. Interestingly enough, Awkwafina was once slated for Hsu’s role, yet another casting decision that led to a rewrite and an entirely different movie.
You can see some of Jobu Tupaki in Shu Shu. Maybe she’s not exactly planning on eliminating all of life itself due to a nihilistic depressive spell, but Stephanie Hsu gives the character the same amount of life, throwing herself into the role and making it her own. Hsu’s clearly a great character actor, and with Shu Shu she finds the great comic trope of the sassy-but-insightful best friendn (“get that nasty shit, girl!” she shouts after Young Grandma, who’s on her way to pursue her true love).
As with Everything Everywhere, it’s a futile task to adequately put “Grandma & Chill” into words. It’s a delightful, funny, and genuinely creative piece of entertainment that remains uncompromising in its vision, and it really has to be seen to be fully appreciated. It’s well worth 20 minutes of your time and deserves a spot in your HBO queue. If nothing else, it’ll show you greatness in the making.
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