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Eve & the Fire Horse

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A little girl asks: “Are the Buddha and Jesus friends?” There are a hundred possible answers to that question, but to the girl who asked it, the obvious choice is “yes.” Why wouldn’t they be? They’re both so big on being a good neighbor and doing good deeds. In the girl’s imagination, they hang out every night in her kitchen and shoot the breeze. Sometimes they even dance.

This is “Eve & the Fire Horse,” a remarkably good-natured and gentle film about spirituality’s place in a family’s life. It was written and directed by Julia Kwan, who drew on her own experiences growing up in Canada in the 1970s and seeing Western and Eastern ideas blend together.

The Engs are a traditional multi-generational Chinese family in Vancouver. Grandmother (Ping Sun Wong) lived in China for most of her life and maintains a number of Buddhist traditions and superstitions, including pouring tea for the gods every morning, though they never seem to be thirsty. Her son Frank (Lester Chit-Man Chan) is a good husband and father but a luckless fellow in his business dealings. Frank’s wife May Lin (Vivian Wu) cuts down an apple tree — which is said to be bad luck — and soon thereafter suffers a miscarriage and becomes bedridden.

Frank and May Lin’s two children are 11-year-old Karena (Hollie Lo) and 9-year-old Eve (Phoebe Jojo Kut). Eve was born in 1966, the Year of the Fire Horse, an every-60-years event that is said to herald the birth of the most troublesome children. But Eve isn’t troublesome. She’s just … precocious.

While Mom recuperates and Dad tries to improve his luck, the girls undergo their own spiritual journeys. After Christian missionaries visit the house, Karena does a school book report on one of their publications, and soon joins a Sunday School class. Catholic artifacts start to find their way into the Eng home, little crucifixes on the mantel next to the Buddha icons. May Lin doesn’t discourage any of this; her own religious observance is more cultural than doctrinal, and if Christianity makes the kids happy, so be it. Frank is not pleased, and it causes a rift between him and his daughters. Grandmother might have opposed, but she has passed away (leading Eve to believe her new goldfish is her reincarnation, by the way).

The superstitions of Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture are shown in the film’s early scenes, and then Kwan nudges us toward a realization: Christianity has its share of superstitions, too. Religion observance in general, viewed from the outside, can appear foolish and silly.

But that’s not Kwan’s point at all. Her point is that Eastern philosophy is not necessarily more bizarre or “foreign” than what Westerners are used to, and that having faith in something and worshipping the God of one’s choosing can be a comfort and a source of strength. Few films dare to promote such old-fashioned ideas, and it’s especially satisfying to see it done in a film that is as entertaining and technically proficient as this one.

Kwan has an affectionate view of her childhood, and she composes scenes with an air of love and nostalgia. She also has enough characters — an aunt and uncle are in the picture, too — to maintain several small subplots and mini-themes, keeping the story fresh and lively without becoming cluttered.

Eve and Karena’s newfound devotion to Catholicism has its amusing aspects, but their innate desire to find happiness and peace is touching, too. I love this exchange between Eve and a schoolmate, a Sikh boy whom she wants to convert as a means of saving his soul:

“I’m Sikh.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“I’m not into Jesus.”
“But you can have everlasting life!”
“No thanks.”

Where two adults might wind up screaming at each other, two children merely state their positions, shrug their shoulders, and leave it at that.

The performances by Phoebe Jojo Kut and Hollie Lo as Eve and Karena are wonderfully unaffected. Neither girl has acted before, and it shows: Trained, experienced actresses probably wouldn’t have been as natural, as effortlessly honest, as these two are. What a perfectly pleasant, emotionally resonant movie this is.

B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for mild thematic elements.)