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.