Eve & the Fire Horse Commentary

Julia Kwan’s semi-autobiographical feature, Eve & the Fire Horse (2005), is a beautifully crafted exploration of fate and identity. Through the experiences of two children, nine-year-old Eve (Phoebe Jojo Kut) and her older sister Karena (Hollie Lo), writer-director Kwan examines the interplay of two world religions, Christianity and Buddhism, in preparing them to face life. In doing so, Kwan avoids the hackneyed “Who do you think you are?” approach to culture clash, focusing instead on how we come to believe what we believe.

Eve and Karena are first generation Canadians. Their grandmother (Ping Sung Wong) provides the spiritual heart of the home. Grandmother believes in luck, making an offering of three cups of tea each day at the family shrine to ensure that the spirits look kindly on them. Their father, Frank Eng (Lester Chan), works as a cook. He is known for having no luck. While he struggles to make ends meet, his brother, Uncle #8 (Joseph Sin Kin Hing), has become a prosperous landlord. The girls’ mother, May Lin (Vivian Wu), works in a laundry. She is a practical woman who does not believe in spirits or luck. One day, she cuts down an apple tree in their back yard. It is this event that triggers a string of bad luck for the Eng family, forcing the two girls onto shaky metaphysical ground -- which gods should they appeal to in order to remove what seems like a family curse?

Things start to unravel for the Eng family at grandmother’s seventieth birthday. Uncle #8 nearly chokes to death on the special “long-life” noodles made for the occasion. Then May Lin miscarries and sinks into a profound depression. Grandmother is forced to take over the running of the household. One day, she offers to water the garden for Eve, whose job this normally is. However, Grandmother suffers a heart attack from the physical exertion and dies. After the funeral, her son Frank is chosen by the family to take grandmother’s ashes back to China.

This list of calamities sets the girls up for their spiritual journey. Father is away for several weeks. Grandmother is dead. Mother is open to whatever it will take to repairing the damage she has caused by cutting down the apple tree. She begins to pour tea at the family shrine. She starts to meditate. She accompanies the girls to a screening of the Ten Commandments. Coming out of the theatre, she remarks that Jesus teaches you to be a better person, just like Confucius. When the girls press her to allow Christian religious objects in the house, she agrees, saying that it couldn’t hurt to have two gods in the house. Besides, she has heard that Christian kids are easier to control.

The sisters’ romance with Christianity starts with a visit to their home by Gideon missionaries who leave the girls with a book called Living Together in Heaven on Earth, the cover of which portrayed children of all nationalities holding hands. Karena is captivated by the notion of redemption: that if you do good in the world, you can alter your fate. Eve tags along with her sister’s religious explorations, mostly out of a guilty feeling that she has caused her grandmother’s death. The girls join Catholic Sunday school and prepare for baptism. They form a club called the “Girls of Perpetual Sorrow”; their job is to help old people, donate all their birthday money to the poor and watch all 14 hours of the Jerry Lewis Telethon until they become saints. Just to be on the safe side, Eve takes loving care of her new goldfish, which she believes to be the re-incarnation of her grandmother. They fill the house with religious paraphernalia. Jesus-on-the-cross stands side by side with statues of Buddha and dancing goddesses.

Eve is a precocious, inquisitive child born in the year of the Fire Horse: an unlucky sign. Fire Horse children are known to be strong-willed; therefore many of them are drowned at birth in China. The rivers are said to swell with their spirits; she imagines herself swimming under water with the fire horses. Kwan presents Eve’s spiritual exploration through the use of magical realism. The girl’s active imagination brings gods and goddesses alive. She imagines Buddha and Jesus waltzing together as friends in her living room. After a girl at Sunday school says that anyone who isn’t a Christian will go to hell, Eve walks into the kitchen to find a goddess under the sink holding a pipe wrench. The goddess looks up and says that she doesn’t feel much like dancing these days (the family is so sad), so she might as well be productive. Another day, Eve finds Jesus morosely polishing a wooden chair while Buddha disconsolately polishes the silver candlesticks. When Eve asks the goddess why they’re not friends any more, the goddess takes a long drag on her cigarette before replying that they have “irreconcilable differences.” She and Buddha and the other mantelpiece goddesses were now having to step around Jesus because “he thinks he’s the only one here.” Eve uses her observations and imagination to gradually make her own mind up about who she is and what to believe.

Eve & the Fire Horse won the most popular Canadian film award at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2005, the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema, Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, and four Les awards in 2006 for Best Direction in a Feature Length Drama (Julia Kwan), Best Editing (Michael Brockington), Best Production Design (Mary-Ann C.Y. Lin), and Best Sound Editing (Gashtaseb Ariana, Gordon Durity, Velcrow Ripper, and Michael Keeping). In 2007 it won the Claude Jutra Award.

Evelyn Ellerman