“Eve and the Fire Horse” – 2006 AAIFF Review

This year’s New York Asian American International Film Festival includes a number of debut features by female directors, and “Eve and the Fire Horse” – a nostalgic and beautifully rendered film – is perhaps the best of them.

Director Julia Kwan’s semi-autobiographical film, set in 1970’s Vancouver, is shot in warm, richly colored tones evoking the period, and is almost uncanny in its accuracy in representing a child’s point of view. Eve (Phoebe Jojo Kut), who narrates the film, tells us that she was born in 1966, the year of the Firehorse, and that in China, Firehorse children were often drowned because it was believed that they would grow up to be overly strong willed. This engenders the first of Eve’s visions, that of horses floating underwater. This water imagery is a frequent motif of the film, highlighting what emerge as the central themes of the film: the clash of Eastern and Western religious beliefs and practices, and how this affects the film’s characters.

Kwan mostly jettisons conventional narrative in favor of a more associative logic, incorporating visions, dreams, and fantasies into the film’s tapestry. The film is quite remarkable in its depiction of religion and its connection to how immigrants negotiate assimilating to a new society while holding onto their cultural identity.

To Kwan’s great credit, religious faith is not caricatured or ridiculed as it usually is in films, although there is definitely humor in the situation she presents. Eve’s older sister Karena (Hollie Lo) wholeheartedly embraces Catholicism after being given a book by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses that depicts heaven as a utopia where all races hold hands in harmony. A teacher refers her to a Catholic Sunday school, and Karena decides to completely devote her life to Jesus and bring along as many people as she can to her religious quest. Their mother (Vivian Wu), while at first skeptical, takes a pragmatic approach to incorporating Catholicism with the family’s Buddhist faith, adding a crucifix and a Virgin Mary to the goddesses on her mantle. “Two gods in the household are better than one,” she says. She also describes the Bible’s commandment on honoring mothers and fathers as “very Confucian,” and figures that this will help their family fit in better with the general society. Eve’s impulse is to try to bridge these two faiths, resulting in one of the film’s best scenes, Eve’s vision of Jesus and Buddha dancing together. All of this is to the consternation of their father (Chan Chit Man Lester) who, after returning from a trip to China, is told by his wife, “The girls are Catholic now.” “How long have I been away?” he asks in amazement.

There is much more to this film that I haven’t mentioned, involving singing goldfish, mantle goddesses coming to life, baptisms, transcendent levitation, and other elements. Kwan’s film carefully situates this imagery within the context of the young protagonist’s perspective, ensuring that it all never becomes twee or excessively cutesy. In all, “Eve and the Fire Horse” is a wonderful, funny, and quite moving debut that shows great promise.

Note: Julia Kwan won the Emerging Director Award at this year’s festival. Read her interview with Meniscus.