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Sometimes two gods are better than one

Nan Chalat-Noaker Record editor
Phoebe Jojo Kut stars as a nine-year-old in search of answers about life, luck and fate in the Sundance film "Eve and the Fire Horse."
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The opening scenes of "Eve and the Fire Horse" set a mystical tone for a tale that blends Buddhism, Catholicism, drama, humor, innocence and wisdom. Horses drift underwater as nine-year-old Eve recounts the ancient myth that children born, as she was, in the year of the Fire Horse were once drowned in the river because they were too headstrong.

Then again, Eve has a vivid imagination.

Fueled by their Chinese heritage, the pressure to assimilate with their Canadian classmates and a growing curiosity about the world, Eve and her older sister Karena try to comprehend the forces behind their family’s misfortunes. At the same time, their mother, played by veteran Chinese actress Vivian Wu ("The Last Emperor" and "Joy Luck Club"), is struggling to regain her own faith after a devastating miscarriage.

The three take very different paths to reconcile their beliefs, all enchantingly depicted by the film’s writer and director Julia Kwan. The result is a cinematic patchwork of religious symbolism and folk wisdom stitched together with empathy and humor.

After meeting a pair of Christian missionaries, Karena fiercely embraces Catholicism, trying to convert everyone around her including Eve, her parents and a Sikh classmate.

Eve isn’t so sure. Her grandmother’s figurines, including Buddha and a spunky goddess, as well as a statue of Jesus, talk and even dance with her. The special effects are so seamlessly interwoven that it is easy to believe some of the fantastical stories she shares with her skeptical Sunday school class.

According to Kwan, who took audience questions after last Friday night’s premier at the Egyptian Theatre, the story was inspired two stories from her childhood. When her own grandmother died, Kwan’s father, a first-generation immigrant from China, told her their grandmother would be reincarnated as a fish. A couple of years later, though, her Sunday school teacher told her that her grandmother was in hell because she was a Buddhist.

A Fire Horse child herself, Kwan wrestled with whom to believe. "I grew up in a very superstitious household. I called it ‘black magic Buddhism," Kwan said, adding that when she was 8 years old, she was recruited by the local Catholic church and enrolled in Sunday school. "My mom is very pragmatic. She thought ‘Why not assimilate’ and she strongly believed in safety in numbers."

Kwan admitted with a laugh that her mom might have seen Sunday school, not only as a way for her family to assimilate and an additional layer of spiritual protection for her children, but also as "free babysitting."

The push and pull of those conflicting cultures form the basis for "Eve and the Fire Horse" which deserves a place among the handful of richly told coming-of-age stories recently launched at Sundance, among them "Bend it Like Beckham" and "Whale Rider."

The film has already earned acclaim from audiences at the Vancouver Film Festival and was accepted by Sundance as part of this year’s World Dramatic Competition.

Much of the charm of the film is derived from the performances of the two sisters. Remarkably, Phoebe Jojo Kut, who plays the feisty younger sibling Eve, landed the part with no previous experience. According to her real-life mom Prinnie Kut, who accompanied her daughter to Friday’s premier, the girls saw an advertisement on television in Vancouver looking for Asian girls ages 8-11. Phoebe’s sister, who was already interested in acting, encouraged Prinnie to take them to the audition. Phoebe just went along for the ride but ended up landing the role.

But last Friday, the 11 year old said she is now looking forward to finding an agent and acting some more.

As to the film’s appeal for her contemporaries, Phoebe said, "When people are young they have a lot of confusion about religion. I think they will like this story."

As part of the Sundance Film Festival’s community outreach program, there will be a free screening of "Eve and the Fire Horse" at the Kamas movie theater, 30 North Main Street in Kamas, tonight, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. For more information call the theater, (435)783-4350.


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