Hmong stars among us

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For the first time since filming, the cast of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” gathered together last Friday to talk about their Hollywood experiences and take questions about the film from the sizable audience that had gathered in Willey Hall .

“A substantial number of actors in Gran Torino are local,” said Dr. Louisa Schein from Rutgers, who moderated. This homecoming was special not just for the actors but for the community they represented.

The story of “Gran Torino” is about an old, bigoted man named Walt, played by Eastwood, living by himself, alienated from his family. When a Hmong family moves next door, Walt, who is at first rude, is forced to overcome his prejudices and confront the issues the family faces with a Hmong gang.

Bee Vang and Ahney Her , who played the stars of the show, Tao and Sue, were present along with Doua Moua and Elvis Thao (gang members), Chee Thao (the feisty grandma who spoke only Hmong) and Cedric Lee (one of the film’s cultural consultants). Aside from Moua, who admittedly had worked in acting before, this was the first break for everyone else on the panel.

Gran Torino’s screenwriter, Nick Schenk , is a Minneapolis writer who wrote the script while working odd jobs around the city . Much of the movie is based upon his experiences with people he knows from the Hmong community in St. Paul and the greater metro. The script has been highly praised, winning “Best Screenplay of 2008” from the National Board of Review. Oddly enough, a year prior Minnesotan Diablo Cody won an Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay” for “Juno.”

The actors talked about their experiences with Eastwood in a fond manner.

“Clint directed you, but he really let you flow,” said Elvis Thao, in a sentiment that was echoed by many of the other actors. Eastwood, at 79-years-old this May, is a veteran of cinema who has starred in a plethora of films while directing over 30. Ahney Her appeared concerned about Eastwood’s age, as was Chee Thao, who admitted she thought he was an old servant before shooting began. “Grandma” Chee Thao had a good story that brought up a side of Eastwood that isn’t often seen: After the filming, she was so sad it was over that she started to cry, and Eastwood joined in. Moua’s experience was a bit more classic Eastwood; during the scene in which Moua wielded a gun, Eastwood noticed Moua hadn’t had much experience holding a gun and said simply to Moua, “Hold it straight and hold it firm.” Gun lessons from Dirty Harry himself.

The actors spoke warmly of their experiences on the set, sharing stories about filming and bonding with one another.

“We had lots of time to hang out, so we built a family out of it,” mentioned Lee.

One of the most important aspects of “Gran Torino” was the questions brought up by its portrayal of Hmong customs and culture. “Gran Torino” was one of the first portrayals of Hmong culture in the American mainstream, and some in the audience believed that they were not accurately or fairly represented.

Elvis Thao acknowledged the differences but explained that the cultural inaccuracies were at some points dramatized to give a more powerful effect and clear message to people unfamiliar with the Hmong culture. Vang pointed out that, at the end of the day, the decision was Eastwood’s.

Many hoped that the way the film dealt with cultural differences would teach a lesson that will impact Hmong culture off the screen.

“The story is about both sides being wrong. It is about the grandma and about Walt, who both had unhealthy views about each other that were resolved in the end,” explained Lee.

Wameng Moua, editor of “Hmong Today,” a local Hmong Newspaper, who attended the panel, said that the movie “hadn’t revolutionized the way that Hmong people live.” Instead, Moua said the impact of the movie has been more on the people outside of the Hmong culture.

“People do know who the Hmong people are now, [the movie] has brought Hmong people into the mainstream,” Moua said

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