Julia Kwan is off to the races with Eve and the Fire Horse

Julia Kwan certainly didn't want to drown any horses. But she did want us to see lyrically waterborne equines at the beginning and end of her first feature, Eve & the Fire Horse. So, rather than going with animation or scale models or ponies in the pool, she did what most young filmmakers do these days: she figured out a way to solve her problem using modern technology.

"We bought outtakes from a snake-mutant horror movie," Kwan recently told the Georgia Straight, referring to her deep-river scenes. She also filmed a number of horses (including the star of the TV series Black Stallion) on veteran wrangler Danny Virtue's B.C. ranch. And young star Phoebe Kut-who plays Kwan's youthful alter ego in the partially autobiographical tale-mimed the act of drowning in front of a green screen. The three layers of film were then assembled to create the believable and oddly poetic image of a child and beautiful animals at risk.

Many more layers of experiences and ideas went into the making of Eve, which opens here on Friday (January 27). A darkly comic, tartly whimsical family drama set in 1970s Vancouver, the film arrives one week after its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was the only Canadian feature on display (see below).

Until recently, Kwan was best-known for small-scale but substantial shorts like "Inflamed", "Prized Possession", "10,000 Delusions" (about a sign-language instructor looking for enlightenment in the suburbs), and "Three Sisters on Moon Lake".

That latter film, about siblings obsessed with a rodent that their mother poisoned, won the audience award at the 2002 Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto. Her new effort, after receiving popular awards in Calgary and Vancouver, is competing for the grand jury prize at Sundance, which wraps on January 29.

As in the arresting "Moon Lake", Eve finds sisters resisting a mother's unconscious transgressions, although this time the domestic crime happens when mom (Pillow Book star Vivian Wu) chops down an unoffending tree-something taken as terrible luck for the whole family.

"I guess there are similar themes of sisterly bonds in my movies," Kwan explained during one of several meetings between Eve's run on the Canadian festival circuit last fall and her current southward jaunt. "There's also a lot of water and fire imagery, things taken from Chinese mythology, and an interest in rituals in general. But, hey, I don't want to overthink it."

The writer-director, not yet 40, has fashioned a tale of inquisitive siblings (played by Kut and the slightly older Hollie Lo) struggling with their cultural and religious identity in the Canadian mosaic of three decades ago. In real life, Kwan grew up with an older sister in a similarly challenging Vancouver milieu. (They also have a brother-an engineer now living in Northern California-who Kwan says is depicted in the film, in composite form, through various male relatives.)

After an attempt to pursue studies that would presumably lead to a "normal", middle-class living, Kwan moved to Toronto to take film classes at Ryerson University.

"I came into film later than most students," she recalled over tea and a sandwich at a café in Fairview Slopes. "I touched my first camera and saw my first Antonioni film at the age of 23 at Ryerson. What I did have when I was younger was more of a rich interior life. I obsessively wrote journals. Every few years I would bury them, under rocks and soil, thinking they would be discovered some day. Of course, I didn't put them deep enough to survive very long; I'm sure that the first storm probably sent them flying across someone's lawn."

One wonders what these kid scribblings would look like to a puzzled neighbour, just as it's fun to ponder what Kwan's parents, born in China, think of their own lives being depicted on the big screen.

"Oh, it doesn't seem to bother them at all. Well, it's not that they don't get it, exactly, but they see it as a work of fiction. They recognize moments in the movie, but they are overall quite removed from it. They're caught up in a conundrum, of course. They wanted us to be born into these opportunities, but these are often contrary to what they wanted for us. So the opportunities hurt them in a way. My brother and sister have taken a long time to have kids, for example, because of successes in other areas. All my parents know are familiar bonds, not personal aspirations. Now we have all these choices, but we suffer a lot of guilt in order to use them."

This second-generation message-do what you want but feel bad about it-is quite common, and Kwan has frequently touched nerves of non-Chinese viewers at festival screenings of Eve.

"It seems to appeal to lapsed Catholics," she said with the light laughter that appears to come easily to her, "or anybody growing up in a multifaith home."

This sense of bemused dislocation, or willful detachment from the surrounding social order, is quite familiar to anyone examining the immigrant experience, and Kwan is both aware of and sometimes burdened by the responsibility of its portrayal.

"In a way," Kwan explained in a phone chat just before she flew off to Utah, "it's unfair to have to speak about this. Steven Soderbergh doesn't have to explain why he portrays the white-male perspective in his films. I wish that this was a non-issue. And I guess it will be when more Asian filmmakers start telling their stories-when someone can tell a good story, not just a good Asian story."

KWAN FEELS THAT the word pioneer sounds too noble for what she's doing. But she certainly knows that the path for her feature breakthrough was laid by local filmmakers like Mina Shum, who took a somewhat more comic view of growing up Chinese in Double Happiness, which was a national hit a bit more than 10 years ago (and helped launch the career of its star, Sandra Oh).

Shum went on to have more box-office success when she went back to her cultural well with Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity than with attempts to tell tales from the wider world.

"No, I don't think you're boxed into telling that kind of story, exactly," Shum said on the line from her East Vancouver home. "When you grow up in a cross-cultural thing, I think what comes out of it has a lot to do with therapy. When you grow up in the new world with Old World parents, things can look quite comical, and this adds a kind of hope to all the horrible things that happened to you as a kid; it's a way to actually survive and surpass the demons of childhood."

Of course, mining your own memories is no guarantee of success in art or commerce.

"Marketing has very little to do with the compulsion to make a film," Shum said. "When you set out to make a film about your culture, there's no dramatic heartbeat inherent in that, except for the promise to 'step into the exotic world of”¦' Even Water was marketed that way. In the States, Fine Line marketed Double Happiness as a romantic comedy. You can't force people to see things the way you see them; you just have to be as honest and clever as possible and hope they'll pay 12 bucks to see it."

The Hong Kong-born, Vancouver-raised director has since been directing TV and will take on an upcoming CBC movie before tackling The Immortals, an ambitious "kung fu comedy" again anchored by a rebellious daughter. Both Shum and Kwan have a proven interest in spunky females and colourful Chinese myths, and Shum is tickled by Kwan's long-gestating success.

"Julia's films are all very different stylistically, so it will be very interesting to see where they go next."

That's a sentiment shared by Yves Ma, one of three principal producers behind Eve & the Fire Horse. He's had an extra dose of immigrant experience, having been born in Mexico to a French mother and a Taiwanese father. Ma means "horse" in Chinese, and, well, his first name is Yves, so the guy has heard plenty of jokes about his connection to Eve & the Fire Horse.

His relationship with the movie really started in Montreal, indirectly, when he met future producer Erik Paulsson at Concordia University in the mid-'90s. Paulsson then went to the Canadian Film Centre, in Toronto, at the beginning of this decade, just when Kwan was invited there to work on "Moon Lake". Ma moved back to Vancouver and worked with Hong Kong-born Shan Tam on Lunch With Charles, a rare multicultural comedy. Kwan completed her Eve script at the Centre and Paulsson showed it to Ma when both were back on the West Coast.

"There was an immediate personal and artistic connection," Ma, also on the eve of departure for Sundance, told the Straight. "I have a professional mandate to promote cultural sensibilities, and this keyed into that. I also immediately recognized that it was her own personal expression; it was so true and honest, and if it was a Greek or Italian family, it would have been almost the same."

Kwan's script, called Karena and Eve at the time, won the 2001 Charles Israel Screenwriting prize, sponsored by the Writers Guild of Canada, for best unproduced screenplay. It was then summarily turned down by all distributors approached. Eventually, Ma, Paulsson, and Tam agreed to push Kwan to "massage the script" toward more cinematic ends.

"There were a lot of things between the lines that were in her heart and mind. In the end, we fought tooth and nail to maintain the integrity of her voice."

The producers sent it again, and this time three distributors came bidding. In the end, Toronto-based Mongrel Media, which distributes films by Pedro Almodóvar, Woody Allen, and Deepa Mehta, picked up the Canadian rights. Sundance will no doubt determine its fate in the U.S., with new markets already being sought for Asian-American titles like Red Doors and American Fusion. But Ma cautions that the Chinese diaspora cannot be counted on to buy tickets.

"It's a personal film," Ma concluded, "possibly characterized as an art-house movie, and certainly not a genre film. It's almost 40 percent in Cantonese, which presents its own problems." (For her part, Shum recalls that immigrant audiences complained that Double Happiness wasn't dubbed into Chinese.)

"I'm very confident that Julia will have a long, successful career. She's also a very sensitive person, allowing the actor a throughway to deliver what is needed for the story. The way she worked with the cast, especially the girls, who required extra attention-well, it's no coincidence that the performances are so bang-on. You can see that in her shorts, as well. It draws on her background, but she's interested in all kinds of film, especially the humanistic style of Franí§ois Truffaut."

Ma will be producing a short film for Kwan, "Smile", which he calls a "study of personalities within the Chinese-Canadian community". Kwan herself is reluctant to discuss the next few projects for fear of overplaying her hand or jinxing the work. You can read her own thoughts about Sundance in daily postings at www.cbc.ca/arts/film/sundancediary.html. (Not all her travel insights are deeply philosophical. Sample line: "I'm excited about the swag.")

At press time, the neophyte blogger was still coping with the seemingly sudden shift from working in near-anonymity to doing 20 interviews in just two days.

"It's fascinating to see what's coming back from the press. Recently I read that, when I was a child, I wanted to be a nun-and I know that wasn't true."

She also never drowned any horses nor did she join them for midnight swims. But this quietly assertive filmmaker (comfortable doing field research in China but unsure about driving outside her Commercial Drive neighbourhood) knows that fact and fiction-the personal and the metaphorical-will always mix freely in her art. And she doesn't appear to hold it against others for getting confused.

When we last talked, in any case, Kwan was simply drinking in the new possibilities presented by Eve's U.S. debut, perhaps even making mental notes for a spiral notebook to be buried in the future.

"Well, ummh, I have to say I like the giddy anticipation. I love the moment right before something is about to be presented. A clean slate, not good or bad; it just is, and everything in the world is possible. It's like looking out at freshly fallen snow."