Wednesday 10 September 2008

Eve and the Fire Horse (2005)

Everything around young Eve Eng seems to be tied to spirituality, folklore or religion and this film is all about where these things cross into each other. She's a young girl born in 1966, the year of the fire horse, which means that she has a lot of will but is also bad luck. She's Chinese, of a Chinese family, but she lives in Vancouver, where what she absorbs of her family's Buddhist beliefs soon clashes with her elder sister Karena's missionary zeal after converting to Christianity.

This is a world where grandma pours tea for the gods every day and her family burns fake paper money for her after she dies. Naturally she could be reincarnated as Eve's goldfish. Her father has fingers that have gaps between them when he holds them up to the sun so he's unlucky. They eat long noodles for long life but when her mum cuts a tree down while pregnant she causes her future son to die. Goddesses come alive at night and dance until being frozen again until the next night.

The film is superbly done, well paced and fascinating throughout but what touched me most was the way the three central women in the story reacted to the collision of Christianity and Buddhism. Karena switches entirely to Christ and refuses to bow to her ancestors. She founds a club with her sister called the Girls of Perpetual Sorrow with all sorts of rules to help turn them into saints, such as 'a Girl of Perpetual Sorrow will watch all 14 hours of the Jerry Lewis telethon and give away all her birthday money'. However she still interprets the bible with a little flavour: if you touch the bible it can read all your thoughts; Hell is where you get burned alive in a giant wok; and 'Love thy neighbour' means shoot goodness at him through your eyes.

Eve finds the whole thing fascinating and just takes it in stride, but can't quite get into the intended spirit, continually embarrassing her sister and frustrating Sister Agnes who runs the Sunday School. When she asks for stories about miracles, she tells them about luck. She has fun moving with energy in the choir or finding the more exotic parts of the Song of Solomon and reading them to her fellow students. She finds her balance point between the two religions by talking with visions of the goddesses that dance at night. That makes for a surreal scene when Jesus is brought into the Engs' home and Eve gets to dance at night with Jesus and Buddha, but when she asks one goddess why they don't dance any more, she tells her that they walk carefully around Jesus because he thinks he's the only one there.

Meanwhile Mum, May Lin, is initially happy about the whole thing. She sees no problem having the two religions coexist their house because gods are gods and the Christian god is just another one: 'It's better that way. More protection.'she says. When Dad, Frank, comes back from burying Grandma in China he finds a changed family. Not only have the kids found Jesus, to differing degrees, but May Lin won't serve food that bleeds on the 1st and 15th of the month. It's as if their faith has rubbed off on her, not in its type but in its degree.

First time actress and British Columbia native Phoebe Jojo Kut is excellent as Eve, even though she was only 11 years old at the time. She's not done much since: a short film called Smile (also made by Julia Kwan) and a couple of episodes of a TV show called Godiva's. I hope she does much more. Hong Kong born Hollie Lo has the right melancholy as elder sister Karena and Vivian Wu is superb as May Lin in a role that calls for her to provide some of the key balance while keeping back enough to let the children take the focus. It's Julia Kwan's delicate but deep story and direction that holds the mind though. It's going to resonate.

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