Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Eve and the Fire Horses"

Once in a while, I tend to flip away from the channels I usually watch, and once in a while I'm rewarded.

This movie was on the Sundance channel last night (I think that's what it was - it was one of the "high number" digital cable channels that shows movies).

There will be spoilers here. The one big spoiler at the end I'll try to put in white text (so you'll have to highlight over it to read it) but I don't think I can avoid some of the lesser spoilers and still talk about the movie.

It's a movie about a Chinese family living in Vancouver. The parents are from China, the children born in Canada (as far as I could determine - I missed a few minutes towards the beginning). It starts in the late 60s/early 70s and tells the story mostly from the point of view of Eve Eng, who is somewhere in early childhood when the movie takes place (7 or 8, maybe younger? I can't always tell with kids).

It mainly focuses on the differences and the conflict between "keeping tradition" and "assimilating."

The children's grandmother (there is Eve and her sister Karena, and then what I assumed were a set of cousins - an older boy and girl) is the big tradition-keeper. She has a small shrine in the house and every morning pours three cups of tea "for a god who never seems to be thirsty" as Eve comments in her childlike way.

We see family celebrations - Ma Ma (the grandmother) has her 70th birthday. Eve dresses up and dances a traditional dance for her; Ma Ma is thrilled (this is partly to establish the good relationship between the two for a later scene). The family enjoys "long life" noodles and other foods. (There is some conflict; the know-it-all teenaged cousin points out that putting food aside for a god is "stupid" when there are people starving in the world - this breaks a big family tradition that you should NEVER say anything unpleasant at table. It's not clear if this is a Chinese tradition or just one for the Eng family, but at any rate, it's sort of a typical modern-teenagery thing and just shows some of the conflict between tradition and modernism).

One of the interesting aspects of the movie is that the children speak to their parents in English, but the parents speak to them in Cantonese - it's clear that each understands both languages (though from one scene it's not clear how well the mother speaks English). It's an interesting aspect because growing up, I knew two families of immigrants where that took place - in one case, the parents spoke to the kids in Hindi, and the kids spoke in English to their parents. In the other case, it was (I think?) Polish - maybe one of the Slavic languages (I was too shy to ask). In both those cases the parents asked the kids to 'translate' for them - for example, when my Indian friend's mother was speaking to me - they spoke the language but were so shy of their accents that they didn't want to speak it in front of a comparative stranger. So that part rang true, and it really wasn't intrusive (they had, of course, subtitles for the Cantonese parts)

The girl's mother conceives another baby - they "learn" it is a boy using the tradition of a ring held over her stomach - but then loses the baby in a very graphic miscarriage scene (standing at her sink) after chopping down a tree.

(The family is scandalized by it - both that it was an unladylike thing to do, and also, cutting down a tree was believed to "cut the cord").

After that, the girls' mother sinks into depression and often won't leave her bed. A pivotal scene early in the movie shows Eve getting ready for "picture day" at school (one of the things I like about the movie is how those little moments - like "picture day" are so reminiscent of the early-1970s school experience. I am sure part of it was to show the absolute everydayness of Eve's "outside" life, as compared to the tradition of her family and her imaginative flights of fancy).

Anyway, she wants her mother to braid her hair. But her mother is still depressed, and Eve's father won't let her in to see her mother. So Ma Ma insists on braiding Eve's hair...she does it very lovingly and sweetly but Eve (and oh, how this is typical of being a child) wants her OWN mother to do it, so Ma Ma doing it is Not Right and she can't smile or be happy...even when Ma Ma offers to go and do one of Eve's outdoor chores for her. (Later, we see Eve pouting as the photographer takes her school picture).

This is one big spoiler for the movie (if you really hate spoilers, stop reading now, though I will say it's not so much a spoiler in the sense of telling you the end of "The Crying Game" or "The Sixth Sense" as it is a somewhat natural and not unexpected part of the plot. But I'll leave it to you. I don't think the movie would be ruined for you knowing the spoiler here, but if you think it would be, and you are planning on seeing this movie, like this week, you might not want to keep going. But whatever.)

Spoiler ahead

In the course of doing the chore, Ma Ma has a heart attack, or stroke, or some other medical emergency (it's never really discussed). She's taken to the hospital. She lives long enough for her son (the girls' father) to take them to stand outside and wave at her (another 1970s memory: not being allowed into the hospital to visit people if you are a child - having to wave at their window from outside).

But Ma Ma ultimately dies - as the girls learn one day coming home from school.

There is an elaborate period of mourning...during which the girls' mother rouses herself from her bed, walks to the shrine, and pours the three cups of tea.

It's a little scene, but it's meaningful - a torch has been passed, the mother realizes she is now the matriarch in that house, she now has new responsibilities, it is time for her to stop mourning the loss of her unborn son.

Eve feels sad and guilty - she thinks she's responsible for Ma Ma's death, since Ma Ma was doing her chores (and she was rude in her last interaction with Ma Ma).

The girls are taught that Ma Ma could be reincarnated - as a goldfish, or a bird, or a flower. (I don't know enough about Buddhism - I think the family is at least nominally Buddhist? - to know if this is a typical belief).

Eve has a vision (I think this is the first of them) - she thinks she sees Ma Ma down in the basement laundry room. But Ma Ma walks past her, won't acknowledge her presence - which adds to her sense of guilt.

Later, Eve gets a goldfish and envisions it singing Chinese opera (there is a story that her grandmother sang opera for the Emperor. It is not clear if this story is true or one of Eve's embellishments).

The father goes off to China to bury his mother and for an extended visit (his brother - the father to the cousins - cannot travel because of a kidney condition)

During this time, Karena gets converted to Christianity and becomes a Catholic (but, I would argue, she gets it wrong - she believes that she can win paradise for herself - and, more importantly, it seems - for Ma Ma by "being a good person" and "winning people to Christ."). Karena becomes VERY strict and pious about her belief; Eve is more of a syncretist. (There is a scene - it's not as twee as it sounds - where she sees Jesus and the Buddha dancing in the living room - just as she had previously seen the Chinese goddesses "dancing with wild abandon").

Also, the girls' mother decides to become a more strict Buddhist (or to take up Buddhism; as I said, I don't understand Chinese religions well enough to know if they were Buddhist to start with). She starts meditating daily and will not eat "things that bleed" on the first or 15th of the month.

(When the dad comes back, he remarks: Just how long have I been gone?)

Karena decides that they have to become even more pious, for the sake of Ma Ma's soul - she makes up the club of Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow and sets rules for how she and Eve must behave - most importantly, they must convert people. (There's a funny-uncomfortable scene when Karena invites a boy she likes over for an "afterschool event" where she tries to convert him - the audience already being aware that he is Sikh, and, as he says, doesn't "go in for that Jesus stuff")

Eve invites the blonde girl next door (whom Karena had, earlier in the movie, dismissed as PWT - "poor white trash") to come to Sunday School class with her - and the new girl winds up being more popular and fitting in better than Eve, whose flights of fancy give the nun teaching the class fits.

One of the more memorable scenes of the movie - because it rang so true (how psychologically brutal little girls can be to each other!) showed the girls (with PWT girl being part of that group) ganging up on Eve - and making her swear on the Bible not to "lie" any more (Eve had spoken, with typical childhood embellishment, about her Ma Ma's opera singing, and about how her dad escaped a car wreck).

"It's for your own good, Eve!" they tell her (Oh, gosh, I remember that tone - that horrible, smarmy, "I'm more grown up than you" tone. I once had a couple "friends" take me aside and tell me a list of what they perceived to be my "faults" - "for my own good" they said. And I also remember my two "best" friends ganging up and telling me that NEITHER would be my friend any more unless I picked - and told them - which one was my BEST best friend. Even at 8 I could recognize a Hobson's Choice - I could lose one friend permanently, or risk losing both, though that maybe temporarily. I chose not to choose - they didn't talk to me for a couple of weeks but eventually both talked to me again.

Yeah, I wouldn't be a kid again on a bet.)

Anyway, they pressure Eve into swearing on the Bible never to lie again, lest she die next year "starting in February" (Chinese New Year, not the Western calendar year).

And so life continues. The uncle's kidney condition gets worse; the girls' father agrees to be a live donor at considerable risk (this is still the 1970s) to himself.

After the operation, the girls' mother is called to the hospital, late at night.

And then, Karena makes an important decision. This is the Big Big Spoiler, the one I'm going to speculate about how it affects the end of the movie. Read on if you dare. Highlight to read; font is set to white as a default.

Karena decides Eve needs to be baptized, in order to protect their father. So she fills the tub, makes Eve get in - and tells Eve the longer she stays under, the better.

This leads to the main conflict and ambiguity of the movie - Karena holds Eve under the water. And later, you see Karena (alone) being baptized the "traditional" Catholic way (sprinkling) in church. And Eve makes the comment that she "died" that night.

And it is not at all clear if the death is symbolic in the way that every baptism is a symbolic death - or if she literally died for a second or two, but then revived once out of the water - or if she is in actual fact dead, and visiting the family as a spirit.

On the IMDB boards this is debated, with the conclusion being "she's not really dead" - because her mother looks at her and smiles.

And yet, I wonder about a couple things - first, why would Karena be baptized alone? Would not both sisters be baptized at the same time, seeing as they're being baptized as children, not as infants? (If you're Catholic and reading this and have insight as to why, please comment). And second, the whole "If I tell a lie may I start to die before February of next year" seems almost a bit foreshadowy on second thinking.

And at the very end, Eve sees her Ma Ma again - in the same place as she last saw a vision of her - but this time, Ma Ma smiles at her - all is reconciled.

So I wonder. I think perhaps the ending is deliberately left ambiguous, even though I (like, I think, many American film-viewers) don't particularly deal well with ambiguity - we want ANSWERS. But maybe we have to be content with the slight ambiguity of the ending. I don't know

At any rate - it was a very good movie. Probably not the best for wee children - it's pretty philosophical in parts (boring to small kids), and the miscarriage scene is pretty horrible (I had to look away). But it does give an interesting insight into Chinese-Canadian culture, and assimilation vs. tradition.

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