Both a finely wrought period piece and a slice of delicately captured childhood, “Eve & the Fire Horse” reps an exceptional feature debut for young helmer-scripter Julia Kwan, who loosely based this film on her own experiences growing up Chinese in the pre-multicultural Vancouver of the 1970s. Careful handling could take this to the family finish line, given the paucity of live-action PG pics that are actually about something.
The 9-year-old title character (impressive Phoebe Jojo Kut) — born in 1966, the ominous year of the Fire Horse — takes it as a bad sign when her beautiful mother (Vivian Wu) suddenly chops down an apple tree in their front yard.
Soon, Eve’s slightly older sister, Karena (Hollie Lo), enrolls the two of them in a Catholic Sunday school, hoping they can assimilate faster than their mainland-born parents. The teacher finds their enthusiasm disturbing, however.
For the inquisitive Karena, religion is a feel-good umbrella, and she places a Jesus figurine on the mantelpiece alongside the ceramic Buddha and goddess already there.
Others in their circle aren’t quite so ecumenical. The girls’ hard-working dad (quietly charismatic Chan Chit Man Lester) is deeply offended, and the poor-white-trash girl next door (Jessica Amlee) is grateful to be invited to Sunday school — until she recognizes an opportunity to gang up on Karena and Eve, the only Asian kids. Race also rears its ugly head when Eve is drawn to a shy young Sikh boy (Pawan Gill), only to be greeted by epithets when she gets close.
Mostly, though, Kwan stays on the gentle side of memory, with the happy sing-song of a beloved granny (Ping Sun Wong) far more influential than schoolyard bullying. The helmer occasionally drifts toward cuteness, as when a porcelain goddess comes to life and starts dishing out advice. But she always pulls things back in time to keep sentiment on the tart side.
Mary-Ann Liu’s production design offers a non-glitzy take on period detail, aided by a winning combination of ’70s pop songs and crackly old records in Cantonese. Nicolas Bolduc’s lensing has a pleasingly dreamy quality, especially in the images of swimming horses that bookend the memorable pic.