Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
The human will is less indomitable than Julia Kwan's unique rendering of a cultural one in her magical full-length debut, "Eve and the Fire Horse."
The closer the nine-year-old title character of Eve and the Fire Horse gets to believing in either Catholicism or the Chinese religions of her parents, the further the films strays from being a “religious film” and instead becomes a powerful, majestic work about the complexities of growing up in a multiethnic Canada. That’s because for first-time director Julia Kwan, which religion Eve ultimately believes in is less important than Eve’s process of negotiating both to construct her own consciousness. In fact, Kwan wisely gives us hints that both can be true: on the seventh day after the death of her grandmother, Eve has visions of her, just as Chinese superstition predicts; meanwhile, Eve’s older sister does in fact achieve literal transcendence upon being baptized. The film has faith in the transformative power of both; it’s what we as people do with these religions that ultimately matters.
For Eve’s elder sister Karena (a perfectly cast Hollie Lo), the search for Catholicism is spurred by her desire for interracial peace, an idea that grips her the day she discovers an illustration of a "We are the World"-type circle of multi-racial children in a book given to her by door-to-door proselytizers. She contrasts this utopia with the world she witnesses at school, where one girl is singled-out as poor white trash (or "P.W.T."), a boy is ridiculed for wearing a turban, while she is termed a "chink."
For Karena and Eve’s mother (a never-better Vivian Wu), the turn to religion(s) is incited by a desire to be a good mother. "Two gods are better than one," she confidently proclaims, hoping that having icons of Jesus, Buddha, and ancient Chinese goddesses in the family living room will multiply the family’s good fortune. She also suggests that allowing her children to be Catholics will help them have a smoother life growing up in Canada.
For Eve (a soulfully sweet Phoebe Kut), like the clan at the center of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, the turn to spirituality occurs after the hospitalization of a grandmother. Following a Chinese belief, Eve isn’t allowed into the hospital room, so her final memory of her grandmother is from across the street through the hospital room window, a spectral image so chillingly intense as to send Eve on a mission to settle her grandmother’s soul in the afterlife, whether by Buddhism (taking care of a goldfish which may or may not be her grandmother reincarnated) or by becoming a devout Catholic (which involves baptism and proselytizing).
The conflicting tenants of the various religions trouble older sister Karena (who refuses to pray to anything but Jesus) and confuse the father, but not the mother -- who believes that these religions serve, above all, to simply teach their followers to "be good people," -- or Eve -- who is perhaps too young to sort through the textual intricacies of each faith. Rather than the moral contradictions which trouble many older doubters of religion, what confuses Eve are the sort of competing conceptual images and symbols common to both. For instance, both Catholicism and Chinese religions have "god" figures and Eve is torn between the relationships between them. Never mind that each religion values and uses "god" in very different ways, what matters for the nine-year-old is what Jesus would say to a Chinese goddess and vice versa. Another common visual ground includes the concept and image of heaven; Eve wants her grandmother to ascend to the Chinese version of heaven (tian) so she becomes an active Catholic to help her grandmother rise out of the “limbo” of the afterlife (a Catholic concept).
The most haunting common conceptual (as opposed to moral) ground is the image of drowning. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, children such as Eve who are born on the year of the fire horse are drowned. For Eve, this threatening image of drowning becomes especially troubling when she discovers the Catholic requirement of baptism, another forced submergence as sacrifice to higher beings. Eve cannot separate these two images, even though they stand for very different moralistic rituals in their respective religions. Her coming to terms with both at the end of the film is magical because it betrays the beliefs of neither side, yet it seems to be a solution and interpretation that is all Eve’s own, surpassing the boundaries of either religion.
As the film progresses, these common concepts become visual symbolic motifs that recur throughout to inform and reflect Eve’s religious development. By focusing on these somewhat naďve and childish visual (as opposed to moral) conflicts, director Julia Kwan is able to paint religious contradictions as images rather than spoken moralistic diatribes. Thus, we see from Eve’s perspective, images of Buddha dancing with Jesus, as well as Eve swimming with horses in the deep blue hinterlands of her maturing spiritual imagination. Such cartoonish imagery can easily slip into gimmicky annoyance, but instead they work brilliantly in Eve and the Fire Horse because they’re contextualized so convincingly within the yearnings of a nine-year-old.
All the while, Kwan does not let the mythical transcend the problems of the real. As in the similar Whale Rider, spiritual belief is necessarily connected with the tribulations of identity formation. Here, this comes primarily in the form of ethnic consciousness. Eve’s negotiation of the various religions in many ways illuminates to her the arduous process of becoming Chinese-Canadian, just as for Karena, the incompatibility of the two religions means she must confront the values of her very-Chinese parents in order to solidify her own sense of self. The film also exposes the limitations of religion in solving the worldly problems of race. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, the white neighbor Eve attempts to convert surprisingly doesn’t outright reject the church, but rather uses the teachings of Catholicism to play the race card and turn the Chinese superstitions of Eve’s family into a serious liability for citizens of predominately white Canada.
Eve and the Fire Horse is fresh, relevant, and empowering because it is not a movie about culture clash, but cultural negotiation. The contradictions between the various cultures and religions are less important than the ways the characters actively imagine, interpret, and dream religion in order to discover their own identities as Chinese-Canadians. Kwan visualizes those dreams in cinematically beautiful and emotionally uplifting ways, making Eve and the Fire Horse one of the landmark films about the Chinese diaspora to ever flirt with the mainstream.
For more VC Film Festival 2006 coverage, please go to:
Date Posted: 4/27/2006