A major motion picture with close ties to the Asian Minnesota community opens this weekend, and may do more to tell the Hmong story to the nation than all the best public relations work could only hope to do.
Local Hmong actor, Bee Vang, makes his professional acting debut in the new Clint Eastwood drama, “Gran Torino,” (Rated R from Warner Bros/Village Roadshow Pictures) along with several other Hmong from around the country. The story was written by Dave Johannson of St. Paul, together with screenwriter Nick Schenk and developed with Eastwood.
Vang, 17, Robbinsdale, is a junior at Armstrong High School, and won the co starring role last year in a nationwide casting call to portray Thao Lor, a timid teenaged boy who develops an unlikely friendship with his racist neighbor, Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and rugged Korean War veteran.
“I see this movie as sort of about the Eastwood character, and his point of view of Hmong culture,” said Vang. “It is not a documentary, but with all the right things to show what it is all about.”
Eastwood directs and stars as Kowalski, a widower living in the Detroit area, and at odds with his children that want him to live in a retirement community. He and his dog, Daisy, spend the day doing odd jobs and visiting the local tavern.
Kowalski watches as Hmong immigrants begin to replace his lifelong neighbors. He doesn’t know anything about them and isn’t afraid to show that he doesn’t like them. It gets worse as Hmong, Latino and African American teen gangs stake claim to the neighborhood.
Thao is coerced by his cousin, Spider (Doua Moua, also a native Minnesotan) to steal Kowalski’s vintage 1972 Gran Torino, as a sort of gang initiation. He reluctantly agrees but is caught but is able to run off in the darkness. The gang attempts to retaliate by roughing up Thao in his front lawn.
Kowalski intervenes with his vintage military rifle and sends the gang away as they threaten to come after him. He becomes a hero to the neighborhood and doesn’t understand why they are placing gifts of food and flowers on his lawn.
Thao’s mother and older sister, Sue (Ahney Her of Michigan), send Thao to Kowalski to explain what happened and the two somehow get the two together to begin fixing up the neighborhood. Kowalski mentors Thao and he in turn helps him to revisit his suppressed memories and confront long-held prejudices.
Vang said the film succeeds in offering a fair portrayal of the Hmong people and how they contributed to American history through their role in the CIA Secret War against communism in Southeast Asia from the early 1960s through the Vietnam War era.
“I think that we should be recognized for that,” he added. “Still, today there are parts of America that don’t even know about the Hmong people. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the Hmong community to get their voice heard and (this film will get that story told) in places I never would have dreamed.”
Eastwood states in the production notes that, “Gran Torino” marks the first major motion picture to portray characters from the Hmong community – an ethnic tribe of 18 clans spread among the hills of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and other parts of Asia – who made a difficult transition to the United States following their involvement in the Vietnam War. I didn’t know too much about them. Because they had helped the Americans during the conflict, they were brought here as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War.”
Eastwood wanted an authentic Hmong cast, and casting director Ellen Chenoweth networked through Hmong communities in Fresno, St. Paul, Warren, Michigan and other areas of the country.
Local Hmong artists, TouGer Xiong and Sandy C. Moua were instrumental in encouraging the focus on Hmong population centers in Minnesota, Fresno and Michigan.
Ahney Her, makes her feature film debut as Thao’s sister, Sue Lor. Their single mother is played by Brooke Chia Thao, and Chee Thao is their 61-year-old grandmother.
The gang leader, Smokie, played by Sonny Vue, also of St. Paul. The other gang members are played by Lee Mong Vang, Toledo, Jerry Lee, St. Paul, and Elvis Thao, a member of the Milwaukee hip hop group RARE, which is part of the soundtrack.
Filmoing began in July 2008 and the limited sets required only a few weeks on location.
The work was not easy, said Vang, especially coming from a background with no experience. He completed each day by retreating to study and prepare for the next day’s scene.
“I practiced and worked hardest when the filming was still going on,” he said. “I practiced everyday as hard as I could.”
Eastwood invited the cast to make changes and offer input, he added. But he didn’t want the scenes to become boggled down wiht debate.
“The reason why we filmed quickly was not that he didn’t want us to think so much,” Vang added. “Mr. Eastwood wanted us to be fresh and to just do it.”
Vang said he identifies with many of Thao’s good qualities, but says his character is much more quiet and timid. He said the mentorship role under Kowalski was “a father complex” that is very significant.
“I have pretty strong relationship with my teacher and have a mentor myself,” he said. “I invited my mentor to come with me to the world premier.”
Thao said the story is consistent with Hmong culture, saying that only a few shortcuts were taken. He recalled on scene where a Hmong shaman conducts a “Soul Calling” ceremonies at the house for a new baby.
The film has the shaman in the center of the room, surrounded by everyone present, he said.
The actual ceremony has the shaman on a chair by the door calling for the baby’s spirit.
Vang has a drama club membership at school and was selected over hundreds of other young men. Like most, Vang said he was excited but did not believe he would land the role and was shocked to get it.
“I found out a week before we went filming in Detroit, that I was cast in this movie,” said Vang. In the meantime Vang is taking post secondary option courses at the University of Minnesota, and plans to take his first acting class next semester. He would like to pursue it as a career.
Vang is also a talented musician and plays classical piano, oboe, viola and flute. He said that one learning experience was an appreciation for how music enhances the scenes of a movie.
“I learned that music is so important to a movie, to bring out the emotional elements of a scene,” he added.