Hmong get a mixed debut in new Eastwood film

A scene from 'Gran Torino'
Clint Eastwood stars in "Gran Torino" as a racist retired Korean War veteran who lives next door to a Hmong family. Also pictured: Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, and Ahney Her.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios

It didn't take much to excite Tou Ger Xiong when he learned about the making of "Gran Torino."

A scene with actor Bee Vang from Robbinsdale
Thao, played by Bee Vang of Robbinsdale, is threatened by the gang members in the movie "Gran Torino." Filmmaker Clint Eastwood and his team sought real Hmong teen-agers, many of them first-time actors, to star in the film.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios

"I think we heard two words, 'Clint Eastwood' and 'a Hmong movie,'" Xiong said. "I was like, 'What? Clint Eastwood and a Hmong movie?' So you know, that's cool. Because you know Clint Eastwood isn't going to be low-budget, right?"

Xiong, of Woodbury, is a well-known Hmong storyteller and performance artist in the Twin Cities.

This spring, he joined hundreds of hopefuls who lined up for auditions at a Hmong-American community center in St. Paul. The producers held casting calls in places such as St. Paul and Fresno, Calif. -- two cities with huge Hmong populations.

Xiong didn't win a part in the movie. But he said the movie won his respect.

Tou Ger Xiong
Tou Ger Xiong, a Hmong-American storyteller from the Twin Cities, said he respects the filmmakers for seeking cultural authenticity.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"They could have walked down Hollywood and looked for some Korean, Chinese, whatever, Asian-American actors, and say, 'Hey, can we teach you a few Hmong (words),' like they do in other movies, just mimic the words," he said. "But no, they said, 'We want real Hmong-speaking actors.' Asian Americans, we can tell, "That guy's not Chinese! That guy's not Korean!' So, stop trying to fool us."

Xiong didn't know it at the time, but the film, once finished, would be rife with Minnesota connections.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk is from the Twin Cities. Working alongside Hmong immigrants in a local factory helped shape his story.

"I think Walt is an equal-opportunity racist."

Schenk shared a story credit with friend Dave Johannson of Roseville. For a span of 10 months about five years ago, Johannson said he headed over to Schenk's basement in Northeast Minneapolis a few times a week, and to the nearby Grumpy's Bar and Grill, to hash out a framework for the movie.

"We developed the characters and went scene by scene," said Johannson, whose day job is a salesman for CenterPoint Energy.

After Schenk produced a first draft, Johannson recalled going over the script together.

"It was not exactly a cast read-through," Johannson said. "(We were) two guys reading the lines of Hmong teen-agers and a racist Polish guy."

Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, an ornery and bigoted Korean War veteran who worked at a Ford plant for decades.

Dyane Garvey
Dyane Hang Garvey worked as a Hmong cultural consultant on the set of "Gran Torino."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The Hmong cast includes at least five Minnesotans -- almost all of them first-time actors. Bee Vang of Robbinsdale plays the role of Thao, the bookish neighbor boy who strikes an unlikely friendship with Walt Kowalski after trying to steal his '72 Gran Torino.

In the movie, Walt sits on his porch littered with empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He takes stock of his Hmong neighbors, clearly disgusted by the changes on his block.

"Why the hell do the Chinese have to move in in this neighborhood for?" he mutters.

Dyane Hang Garvey, who served as a cultural consultant for the film, said some parts of the script were hard to read.

"I think Walt is an equal-opportunity racist," said Garvey, executive director of Hmong Arts Connection in St. Paul. "I certainly learned a lot of new racial epithets I had never heard of before."

Bee Vang with Clint Eastwood
Actor Bee Vang of Robbinsdale stars in "Gran Torino" with Clint Eastwood.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios

Garvey grew up in the Detroit area, just a mile from the set. The script was originally written for Minnesota, but the filmmakers chose Michigan, in part because of the state's generous tax breaks.

For two weeks of filming, Garvey assisted the filmmakers on things like Hmong names, traditions, and translations.

She even earned the distinction of being reprimanded by Eastwood when she inadvertently interrupted a conversation.

"He just went, 'Shhh! Shhh!' Literally, he shushed me," she recalled, laughing.

Eastwood later atoned for his sternness by kissing her hand, Garvey said.

A scene with Eastwood and Ahney Her
Sue, played by Ahney Her, and retired Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, get to know each other better at a family barbeque in "Gran Torino."
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios

But going into filming, even she had her doubts about the premise for the film. Would it be yet another Hollywood flick depicting exotic Asian gangsters as the bad guys?

"I can tell you when I was reviewing the script, I had read already about the rumors about this being a 'Dirty Harry' movie," Garvey said. "I got pretty scared. I really did. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, did I make the right decision?'"

On online Hmong chat boards, people have already criticized the movie for perpetuating stereotypes. But Garvey said the film shines a positive light on the close-knit nature of the Hmong community in Detroit.

And she notes that the film isn't meant to be a documentary about the entire Hmong people.

"It's really a movie more about people learning to live with each other ... and meet the people that you fear most," Garvey said.

Doua Moua, who plays one of the lead gang members, graduated from the International School of Minnesota in Eden Prairie and moved to New York to follow his acting dreams. He still works in an Italian restaurant to finance his career.

Moua, 21, he didn't have any regrets about stepping into the role of a gangsta. After all, Moua said he saw how gangs consumed his brother's life while they were growing up in St. Paul.

"A lot of the first-generation Hmong people went through this, too," he said. "You know, like the hardship of these young men trying to assimilate to the American culture, but because they don't have a fatherly figure there with them ... they come together, form gangs, support each other, and kind of become each other's lookout."

The entertainer, Tou Ger Xiong, said early critics of the film need to look at the big picture.

"First things first, let's get our foot in the door. Complain later," he said.

He said he's been trying to tell the Hmong story for 13 years. He thinks maybe now, somebody will listen.

"Gran Torino" opens in Minnesota theaters Jan. 9.

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