Eve & the Fire Horse

Starring Phoebe Kut and Vivian Wu. In English and Cantonese with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, January 27, at the Cinemark Tinseltown and Fifth Avenue Cinemas

Both a finely wrought period piece and a slice of delicately captured childhood, Eve & the Fire Horse is an exceptional feature debut for local writer-director Julia Kwan, who loosely based this on her own experiences growing up precocious and Chinese in the less multicultural Vancouver of the 1970s.

The nine-year-old title character (played by impressive newcomer Phoebe Kut) was born in 1966, the ominous year of the Fire Horse. She takes it as a bad sign when her unreasonably beautiful mother (Vivian Wu) suddenly chops down an apple tree in their front yard. Her older sister, Karena, (Hollie Lo) is meanwhile trying to assimilate faster than her parents can handle, and the latest ploy is to go gung ho for Christianity. She and Eve suddenly enroll in a Catholic Sunday school, where the teacher finds their enthusiasm just a wee bit disturbing. For the inquisitive Karena, religion is a feel-good umbrella, allowing her to a Jesus figurine on the mantelpiece alongside the ceramic Buddha and goddess already there.

Others aren't quite so ecumenical. The girls' hard-working dad (quietly charismatic Lester Chit-Man Chan) is deeply offended by this affront to old gods. And the poor, white-trash girl next door (Jessica Amlee) is grateful to be invited along to Sunday school-until she sees an opportunity to gang up on her Samaritans, the only Asian kids in the class. Race rears its head, too, when Eve is drawn to a shy young Sikh boy (Pawan Gill), only to be greeted by nasty epithets.

Mostly, though, Kwan stays on the gentler side of memory, with the happy singsong of a beloved granny (Ping Sun Wong) far more influential than any schoolyard bullying. The filmmaker occasionally drifts toward cuteness, as when a porcelain goddess comes to life and starts dishing out advice. But Kwan always pulls things back just in time to keep her 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 mixed in with Mychael Danna's unobtrusive score. Nicolas Bolduc's cinematography has a pleasingly dreamlike quality, especially in the images of swimming horses that bookend this memorable effort, which in the end waves goodbye to us like the last glimpse of a beloved grandmother.