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Sisters of Mercy

Eve & the Fire Horse:
Julia Kwan’s unforgettable debut

CBC Arts Online

Julia Kwan’s Eve & the Fire Horse remains one of Cana­di­an film’s under-the-radar clas­sics. I wrote this essay for CBC.ca after see­ing the movie for the first time more than a decade ago.

Eve & the Fire Horse is such a qui­et, clear-eyed med­i­ta­tion on child­hood that you bare­ly notice as it burns its way into your mind. And when it’s over, you’re left with this mag­nif­i­cent maze of mem­o­ry, a lat­tice­work of images lift­ed from the sweet and som­bre play­ground world of two young sisters.

Van­cou­ver film­mak­er Julia Kwan seems to have car­ried this sto­ry in her head for years, so eas­i­ly does it fuse reli­gious iconog­ra­phy (both East­ern and West­ern), pop-cul­ture residue, the Cana­di­an immi­grant expe­ri­ence, com­plex famil­ial bonds and a young girl’s sear­ing endgame with fate. Despite all these lay­ers, how­ev­er, Kwan’s debut fea­ture — which she wrote and direct­ed — nev­er tips toward pre­ten­sion. It is a mod­est pic­ture, but also res­olute, and absolute­ly enthralling. It’s no won­der that Eve & the Fire Horse arrived at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val cov­ered in gar­lands (it pre­miered at the Toron­to Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val and won the People’s Choice award at the Van­cou­ver film fest).

The film opens with the Eng girls, Eve (Phoebe Jojo Kut) and Kare­na (Hol­lie Lo), cross-legged and face-to-face in the fam­i­ly yard. It’s mid-’70s Van­cou­ver. They’re part­way into a round of pat­ty-cake. “My sis­ter told me that God leaves a mark on every­one,” says nine-year-old Eve, intro­duc­ing us to the two forces that come to shape her sto­ry: a hard-boiled 11-year-old sis­ter and an unwa­ver­ing fas­ci­na­tion with reli­gious belief.

Eve & the Fire Horse revolves around a fam­i­ly of first-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese-Cana­di­ans. The work­ing-class Engs see super­sti­tion every­where; it’s how they nav­i­gate their lives. Eve’s father (Lester Chit-Man Chan), who works in the kitchen of a Chi­nese restau­rant, can’t hold on to mon­ey because of his crooked fin­gers (which also serve as a visu­al metaphor for a gam­bling addic­tion). Her moth­er (Vivian Wu) can’t account for the spir­it that com­pelled her to chop down the family’s apple tree, an impul­sive act that por­tends bad luck for the entire household.

Eve’s own bur­den is unique. Born in 1966, the year of the fire horse, she car­ries an omen of deep, dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quence. Accord­ing to the Chi­nese cal­en­dar, the sign only recurs every 60 years, and those chil­dren born under it are thought to be trou­ble and sad­dled with ill for­tune. When Eve’s moth­er mis­car­ries and her pater­nal grand­moth­er (Ping Sung Wong) sud­den­ly dies, Eve is con­vinced that she’s to blame.

After an unex­pect­ed vis­it by a pair of Jehovah’s Wit­ness­es (and a cour­tesy copy of Liv­ing Togeth­er in Heav­en on Earth), Kare­na dis­cov­ers Chris­tian­i­ty — a bridge, per­haps, between the Engs’ Bud­dhist her­itage and West­ern reli­gion, between an Asian and Euro-Cana­di­an iden­ti­ty. Dogged and unsmil­ing, Kare­na draws Eve into her born-again faith. They dub them­selves the Girls of Per­pet­u­al Sor­row. Their mis­sion? “To do good in this world,” which includes bring­ing hap­pi­ness to a fam­i­ly in mourning.

Hard­ly a fash­ion­able route to assim­i­la­tion, the girls’ new­found faith is a source of some of the movie’s fun­ni­est and most mov­ing moments. “I’m not into Jesus,” says Karena’s Sikh class­mate after being lured to a covert, after-school con­ver­sion party.

Wide-eyed and per­pet­u­al­ly puz­zled, Kut per­fect­ly cap­tures Eve’s cul­tur­al and pre-ado­les­cent con­fu­sion. Her imag­i­na­tion is a burst­ing amal­gam of tra­di­tions and lit­er­al-mind­ed­ness. She’s prone to see­ing things: Jesus and Bud­dha danc­ing in the liv­ing room; her gold­fish rein­car­nat­ed with an oper­at­ic voice. As the child of Asian immi­grants in a main­ly white com­mu­ni­ty, Eve is always a lit­tle out of joint.

Are we poor white trash?” Eve asks at one point, after Kare­na describes a girl as “PWT.”

Don’t be stu­pid,” her sis­ter scolds. “We’re not white.”

Eve & the Fire Horse will inevitably be com­pared to Dou­ble Hap­pi­ness (1994), Mina Shum’s edgy com­ing-of-age sto­ry, which was set in a sim­i­lar Van­cou­ver Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty. But if you put the sub­ject mat­ter aside, Kwan’s aes­thet­ic feels clos­er to more recent films: the slow melan­choly of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Trans­la­tion or the peri­od detail and sib­ling sen­si­bil­i­ty of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.

Kwan has cre­at­ed a visu­al scheme ground­ed in earthy colours — browns, greys, beiges — and the gor­geous, late-after­noon West Coast light. Locat­ing the action in the 1970s allows for some easy nos­tal­gia (Pop Shoppe drinks, the girls’ vow to watch “all 14 hours of the Jer­ry Lewis telethon”), although the choice of era is more than just cos­met­ic. Now 39, Kwan has had more than three decades to digest her own child­hood; as a result, the set­ting feels utter­ly authen­tic and nec­es­sary to giv­ing the film emo­tion­al and nar­ra­tive clar­i­ty. Kwan moves between cul­tures with incred­i­ble ease — much like the Eng girls, who absorb their par­ents’ Can­tonese and respond in Eng­lish. In a movie about claim­ing your own lit­tle cor­ner of the world, Julia Kwan has pro­duced an inspired gen­er­a­tional document.