Gran Torino connects Hmong Minnesotans with Hollywood

The Hmong shaman had come to the movie set fully equipped. Normally he’d have worn a shirt and slacks, but for Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Gran Torino, he dressed as he would have in Laos. Using his own equipment and mostly his own traditional dress, the shaman was ready to shoot the ceremonial scene. That is, until they hit a snag. He’d left the equipment he needed to perform the ritual in his trailer.

Dyane Hang Garvey, the Hmong cultural consultant on the set, told a young Hmong American man to run back to the shaman’s trailer to get the equipment. The young man came back breathless, with a Keng—a bamboo musical instrument. It was the type of misunderstanding that would be repeated frequently during Hang Garvey’s two weeks on the set of Gran Torino: the young Hmong man didn’t know the appropriate equipment for the ritual, so Hang Garvey stepped in and make sure everything was culturally copacetic.

A few scenes in the movie required a deep understanding and knowledge of Hmong culture to produce. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is the story of a racist, crotchety Korean War veteran, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), whose worldview gets flipped on its head when a Hmong family moves in next door to him. Soon Kowalski warms to them and tries to intervene in his neighbors’ lives, particularly in the teenagers who are involved in gangs and even try to steal Kowalski’s car—the movie title's 1972 Gran Torino. Like most Eastwood films, the movie ends dismally but with a healthy dose of lessons and character growth.

Hang Garvey was particularly appropriate for the position of cultural consultant on the movie set. She is the director of Hmong Arts Connection, a St. Paul based organization that promotes Hmong literary and visual arts, particularly among youth and young adults. It publishes Paj Ntaub Voice, a Hmong literary arts journal. Hang Garvey originally helped Warner Brothers cast actors from Minnesota. At least six actors and actresses are from Minnesota, including 17-year-old Bee Vang who plays across Eastwood. Then, because of her connections to the Hmong community in Minnesota and Detroit (where Gran Torino was filmed), Hang Garvey became the movie’s cultural consultant and spent two weeks on set.

It turned out Hang Garvey had to do more than advise the American filmmakers on Hmong culture. The film itself touches on the generational disconnect between the older Hmong generation and the Americanized Hmong youth. Hang Garvey says the Hmong generational gap was as evident behind the scenes as it was in the script.

“I felt like I was a negotiator between the elders and the young people,” Hang Garvey said. “The same generational and cultural clash was happening on and behind the scenes that was happening in the movie.”

One such instance occurred in a scene depicting a Hmong soul-calling ceremony. During the scene a shaman performs a ritual to invite the soul of a newborn baby into the home. Traditionally the ritual features a cooked chicken with its head intact, but the film did not allow this because of animal rights regulations. Hang Garvey said, “The young people were extremely upset that the chicken wasn’t there, that it wasn’t correct. They felt like they knew more than the elders.” The elder Hmong actors, by contrast, were less disturbed by the inaccuracy.

Hang Garvey, the shaman and some of the older actors tried to assuage the younger actors’ concern. The shaman told some of the young Hmong American actors that Hmong people have lived through situations where they didn’t have access to every thing they needed in rituals, and yet were still able to perform ceremonies. It is most important, he told the young actors, simply to get the message across—in this case the message was that the community was welcoming the soul of the newborn.

One young Hmong American woman was particularly upset with the ritual, saying her father was a shaman and had never performed the ceremony without the chicken.

“What she lacked in understanding was that every shaman does things a little differently, and that each clan does things a little differently,” Hang Garvey said. As the filming progressed, Hang Garvey became a cultural broker between Americans, young Hmong Americans and Hmong elders.

Her two weeks working on the set of Gran Torino have helped shape Hang Garvey’s professional vision of her work with Hmong youth and the arts.

“It certainly has forced me to really face that generational gap,” she said. “I’ve always known it was there, but I’ve never really been faced with it when I see such a big divide.” Hang Garvey said. “It’s going to really change the way to do things.”

Hang Garvey would like to encourage younger people to take advantage of travel opportunities and the knowledge of elders within the local Hmong community. She recently worked with Tou Saiko Lee, a St. Paul-based spoken word artist in his 20s, to help him apply for a Jerome Travel Grant to travel to Thailand. She hopes this will strengthen his ties to his Hmong heritage.

“People in their twenties and younger are hungry,” Hang Garvey said. A lot of them know that there’s really a part of them that’s Hmong but they don’t yet know how to define it, but they haven’t fully integrated this into their lives, because they identify as young American, which they are, but now they have reached a point where they also want to be Hmong.”

Warner Brothers will release Gran Torino on December 17 in select cities.

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peterson.delacueva's picture
Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva

Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (lisa [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is the project manager for the New Normal project at the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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GT experience

This is an interesting article and is revealing about some of the learning curves behind the scene (no pund intended). Thanks Lisa, for the interview. I consider myself a young Hmong American, but don't ask my wife that;). Some of the gaps that Dyane Hang Garvey brought up was true. But having been on the set and a part of GT, I had a very different point-of-view about the gaps she mentioned. First of all, this interview of Hang Garvey is really revealing of a self-promotional gloat and how she seems to have superior knowledge over all Hmongs. Don't get me wrong, I am happy for her and our people in being a part of a lagendary actor/director like Clint Eastwood and his movie, Gran Torino. I believe the real gap was in Hang Garvey's lack of understanding her people. She seemed too busy trying to look the part, but was obviously clueless in her role. Like in any relationship, communication was key and she didn't seem to allow anyone else to be voiced. In some of the frustrations that all the Hmong cast had during the shoot, a lot of basic cultural accruacy was overlooked. We soon realized that the "cultural consultant" really didn't know what she was doing and had no idea to convey it. We just assumed it was "Hollywood." I later learned that the scripts were kept untouched and true to it's original score, because Clint had a bad experience in adjusting scripts with "Unforgiven." The only thing was, Nick Schenk's passion to communicate a culturally indifferent society overlooked some of basic accruacy of the a culture. It was evident from the beginning when names of characters were incorrectly used on different genders. However, I am very proud and happy for all who were a part the GT experience. Our peoples part in this movie was minimal, but the part this movie is to our people, was historical. Congrats to Clint, the crew, Ahney and Bee! Wish you all much luck.

GT experience reply

As another person who was close to the Minnesota connection to the Gran Torino film, I feel the need to defend Ms. Hang Garvey and her role in the film. It is true that she was given an instruction wherein the script was to be ultimately "left alone", but she did in several small ways adjust many of the aspects of the film that were specific to the Hmong, including character names. And in several instances, she stood as an arbiter of disagreements over how the Hmong characters should be portrayed. Many of those disagreements were between older Hmong participants and the younger crowd. Ultimately the job of sorting out the truth was hers, and not the actors'. I think the ultimate issue here is a misunderstanding between what is the role of the "actor" and what is the role of the "consultant". Also a disagreement over whether films that portray the Hmong need to be completely accurate, or should include perhaps true aspects of the Hmong in the United States that may not be common today but did happen in the decades since they came to America. A sort of 'holistic' view of the Hmong-American. Also you should know that part of Hang Garvey's role was to bring to life aspects of the Hmong that ARE more pleasing to the eyes and ears of "Hollywood". That might mean featuring a Hmong Shaman where such a person might not normally appear today, but would have appeared at some point since the Hmong came here. Or in another case the use of Hmong tools or props that may to young Hmong today appear out of place or anachronistic, but make for good story telling. Hang Garvey herself in interviews has openly said that the purpose of Gran Torino was never meant to be a documentary on the Hmong. Ultimately this is a movie about Clint Eastwood's character, and everyone else is just there to support his story. Hang Garvey was hired to help Clint tell his story and in doing so keep him honest in reference to the Hmong, and as such she did her job very well.

@Hmoobtagtag What pun

@Hmoobtagtag What pun were you alluding to? I don't know what a film cultural consultant does but after reading your comments it seems Ms. Hang Garvey's attempts to bridge the generational divide between the young and the elders are confirmned by your posting (and you even wrote this: Some of the gaps that Dyane Hang Garvey brought up was true.) I had trouble connecting "clueless about her role" and the "real gap" in Ms. Hang Garvey's Hmong knowledge to the names and the script. You seem to know, so what was her role anyway? You suggest that that Ms. Hang Garvey had something to do with the Hmong names in the story. I've been following the stories about the Hmong and Gran Torino and I don't recall Ms. Hang Garvey or the writer or Clint Eastwood connecting her to the script writing. Why would Hmong actors and crew want to change the script anyway? Clint Eastwood has said in his interviews that he doesn't like making changes to his scripts--even you acknowledge this in your posting. You say that Ms. Hang Garvey didn't listen to your inputs or the inputs of other Hmong on the set. It's pretty clear that Cint Eastwood determines what he wants in his movie, not you or Ms. Hang Garvey. The Hmong revere their elders, at least this is what Gran Torino and what I've heard the Hmong people say about their traditional values. How is it that you, the young actors and young Hmong crew didn't respect the elders on the set, which includes Ms. Hang Garvey? Like I've said earlier, I think your posting reveals that there is a cultural and generational gap between the young and the elders as Lisa's article explains it so well. Thanks for sharing your side of the story with us.

Why is the Hmong community

Why is the Hmong community so critical. We should be proud of all the people who particpated in this movie. It was a tough role to be in Dyane Hang Garvey's shoes and not only that, all of the actors/actresses who were invovled. Lets take this time to reflect on how far the Hmong community has come and be greatful that this is the first time they placed Hmong people on the big screen. Peace and Happy New Year

What's the Point

What's the point of this article and gloating about this fake cultural consultant. What's the point of having a cultural consultant when a white script writer who was not as knowledgeable as he claimed to be is getting his script unedited onto film. Why should the Hmong community be proud of being treated like set props and exotic cartoon characters in a Move.. "Walt I wish you were my father, Hmong men are too controlling.."haha or something to that extent..there's nothing I'm proud about in this film but the continual lack of intellect of Hmong people in the community who accept to be treated as another ethic prop in a Hollywood film. Sure, keep leaving presents at your white neighbors doorsteps like servants.. makes me feel really proud.