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Knives Chau Has Always Been the Coolest Part of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’

Ten years later, Scott’s ex-girlfriend remains the secret MVP of a movie full of worthy candidates

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

The best line in the movie is “Bread makes you fat?!” and no one disputes this. The second-best line is “You punched me in the boob—prepare to die, obviously,” and thank you in advance for not disputing this. The third-best line in the movie is “No no no, the first album is much better than the first ... album,” and yeah, that’s a deep cut, but let me have this. But the most important line—as delivered by, in retrospect, the movie’s most important character—is “I mean, I didn’t even know there was good music until like two months ago!

Protect Knives Chau, the indignant 17-year-old dynamo meekly dumped by the titular hero/villain of the mighty Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which premiered on August 13, 2010, and quickly evolved from box office flop to sneaky cult classic to widely acknowledged masterpiece. Edgar Wright’s relentlessly hybrid action-comedy—it’s a kung-fu flick, it’s superhero-adjacent, it’s a punk-rock musical, it’s a (post-)teen romance, it’s a shrewd skewering of both dopey toxic masculinity and the very notion of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—was so far ahead of its time as to render “its time” irrelevant entirely. (The two biggest movies to also hit theaters that day 10 years ago were Eat Pray Love and The Expendables.) Knives Chau deserved far better too, and watching her slowly realize this is an excellent reason to rewatch this film for the 200th time.

First, though, have pity on this poor trailer.

Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of boisterous graphic novels—and directed and cowritten by the mighty Wright, coming off two genre-scrambling, outlandishly charismatic hits in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz—this movie seemed to be, if not a sure thing, than at least a safe-feeling thing. But the comic-book sweat droplets practically visible in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s marketing campaign made clear how hard a sell this really was, how much context it required. It’s a lot. More specifically, it’s a feast for superfans of anime, video games, neon hair dye, perpetual adolescence, punk bands with acoustic guitars, and other nerd-type shit shortly before the internet made any and all conversations about that shit totally unbearable. But even walking out of the theater totally satisfied in 2010 (that’s right, I saw it in the theater, fuck with me), you had the sense that it might take the larger world a little while—a few years, even—to properly absorb it all.

Scott Pilgrim was also a majestic feat of casting, from Michael Cera as Scott the simpering hero/villain to Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his wounded and way-too-cool-for-anyone love interest Ramona Flowers to scene-stealing antics from, well, let’s see here. Kieran Culkin. Aubrey Plaza. Anna Kendrick. Alison Pill. Mae Whitman. Jason Schwartzman as a leering villain. Brie Larson as a rock star. (Feel free to sing along.) Chris Evans as a preening action hero whose fake movie posters give you some idea of Wright’s incredible attention to incredibly silly detail.

But it is Ellen Wong as Knives Chau who will bowl you over the next time you stumble across this movie on Netflix. As we open, Scott Pilgrim is a mewly 22-year-old Toronto doofus with a rock band (all hail Sex Bob-Omb) and a maddeningly shaggy haircut and, yes, a 17-year-old Catholic-school girlfriend. “Knives Chau—she’s Chinese,” he pompously informs his bandmates with a self-satisfied smirk that is all the hero-as-villain characterization any movie could ever need. And then she appears, starry-eyed and comically worshipful and immediately plopped down on a couch so she and Young Neil (love Young Neil) can watch Sex Bob-Omb rock out through the opening credits, after which she declares, in a stupendously lovelorn daze, “You guys … are so … amazing.”

Scott Pilgrim is technically the story of our hero/villain meeting the mysterious and irresistible Ramona and dumping his underaged girlfriend with the immortally feeble line “Listen, I was thinking we should break up or whatever” and then fighting Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes so as to prove his love for her and his respect for himself. Great fight scenes, great vegan jokes, et cetera. But it’s his dumped underaged girlfriend who gets the most satisfying arc: cheerful arcade queen, cowed record-store shopper, unreasonably ecstatic girlfriend of a guy in a band. (Her delivery of “OH MY GOSH! THEY’RE ON!” the first time Sex Bob-Omb hits the stage is amazing, and contrasts nicely with Ramona’s look of pure horror when Scott mentions he’s in a band.) Knives is the stand-in for all the teenagers ever told they weren’t into cool-enough stuff, which is to say every teenager, and every teenage girl especially.

Which is what makes “I didn’t know there was cool music until two months ago” so fantastic, this lament arriving just as Knives is starting to realize that the idea of “cool music” is a scam perpetrated by 20-something manchildren and the 30-something-at-least manchildren who make (often pretty great!) movies about them. (Also, protect yourself from Knives Chau: Dig the way she almost breaks the bed in half with her own back as she curses out Ramona by spitting, “She’s probably, like, 25.”)

It is true that Knives says these things shortly before dying her hair to look like Ramona’s, and menacing her in a nightclub bathroom, and eventually challenging her to one of those heavily stylized fights (“GET READY TO CHAU DOWN!”). But she is already steadily moving toward her independence, and indeed a crucial line for the graphic novels and the movie both: “I’m too cool for you anyway.” It’s the truest thing anyone in the movie says to anybody.

Wong clearly thrives in boisterous ensembles: She is now playing Fortune Cookie in Netflix’s very splendid ’80s pro-wrestling comedy GLOW. If we’re honest, she’s also the secret MVP of the fully remote Scott Pilgrim table read that hit YouTube in July, which for the record is the only table read of anything I’ve ever watched in my life, and I watched the whole thing immediately. Her righteous indignation as she delivers the whole she’s-probably-25 speech has only grown more profound over the course of these 10 years, as many of Scott Pilgrim’s biggest fans have swung from one side of the 25-year-old divide to the other. Also, she brought her own wig.

One side perk to being an unabashed Scott Pilgrim stan is that you’ve got a host of auxiliary material to sift through: the bloopers, the audition tapes (starting with Wong’s), the behind-the-scenes effluvia (Winstead is very intimidating in general), and, yes, the alternate ending where Scott and Knives actually end up together. Which is all very sweet, but clearly the wrong choice: not for him or even necessarily for the movie, but for her. In a fictional environment this pop-culture-obsessed and manchild-dependent, as outstanding and durable as the resulting film might be, the true victory is to walk away from everything and everyone. We have known this movie was cool for at least a few years now, and now we know why.