Not since Anne Fadiman’s bestselling 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down have Hmong Americans had the chance to be so visible in mainstream pop culture: Director Clint Eastwood’s next film Gran Torino, shot in Detroit in August, will feature an almost all-Hmong leading cast.
After holding open casting calls attended by hundreds of Hmong in the communities of Saint Paul, Fresno and Detroit, Eastwood settled on ten Hmong leads and supporting players, all but one of whom are first-time actors. Hmong crew, cultural consultants and dozens of extras were also hired.
The screenplay by Nick Schenck, a white Minnesotan, features Walt, a cantankerous Polish American man, played by Eastwood, who has just lost his wife and is estranged from his children and grandchildren. Disgruntled that his urban neighborhood is being populated by more and more Hmong arrivals, he keeps a cautious distance until the nerdy teenage boy next door, Tao, tries to steal his vintage Gran Torino car to prove himself to a Hmong gang. Walt extracts work from Tao as payback, and in the process, becomes friendly with Tao and his family. He is tutored in Hmong culture, and his racist stance gradually chips away.
Hmong immigrants—who began arriving in the U.S. in 1975 after fighting alongside the CIA in the secret war in Laos—have previously had almost no presence in Hollywood; their appearances have been limited to colorfully costumed voiceless hilltribes in the backdrop of Southeast Asian war movies.
Two exceptions are Wa Yang, who had a small role in Letters from Iwo Jima, and Disney teen actress Brenda Song, who is of Hmong and Thai descent and has a recurring role on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Song also starred in the Disney TV movie, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, about a Chinese American prom queen turned woman warrior. In order for Song to land mainstream Chinese roles, she’s had to bury her Hmong heritage.
Hollywood Acting, Eastwood-Style
Eastwood hasn’t commented publicly on his motivations behind doing Gran Torino, but in a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose he said: “I feel I learn something on every movie—about actors, about storytelling, about myself….The exciting thing about movie making for me is the fact that you do learn something new every picture….”
Maybe he felt that he identified with the character of Walt, at least the paternal part. According to people on set, he is generous and easy-going, gives gentle direction and mostly wants to bring natural actors out to be themselves.
“Eastwood is the most humble person I’ve ever worked with,” said Ahney Her, the 16-year-old actress who plays Tao’s older sister. “He makes you feel calm. He gives you that vibe that you’ll be OK.”
Her, from Lansing, Mich., has performed as a Hmong hip-hop dancer since she was 7 and has been training for acting for the last three years.
But she was still incredulous that she was cast.
“Who would think that some random girl like me would get [the lead]?” she said.
Bee Vang, who plays the bookworm Tao, is another unlikely lead and even more studious in real life than his character. Vang plans to go to medical school and at 16 is already taking pre-med classes at the University of Minnesota. But he called getting this role “really life-changing” and now is considering other creative interests, including visual arts and classical music.
Sonny Vue, who plays the lead gangster, also had no experience in front of the camera—his acting resume includes just one high-school acting class. But the 19-year-old thinks he got the part because of his “Hmong American look” (when he auditioned, he wore a t-shirt that boasted: “I’m Hiding From the Cops”) and his “perfect Hmong street English,” the Saint Paul version of the ever-more-standardized hip-hop style that bonds urban youth across the U.S. in defiance of authority.
Reversing Stereotypes or Remaking Them?
In a bid for authenticity, Eastwood—in his signature directing style—encourages the actors to ad-lib lines, even in Hmong, that they think might really have been said. Lee Mong Vang, 26, a self-described jokester, is doing his part to increase the comedic content of the dialogue through his role as Gangster #3: “I throw some funny lines out there. Clint is pretty lenient.”
The actors in Gran Torino are aware that such a film is unprecedented: Hmong in leading roles played by mostly first-time actors who are portraying their own people to the mainstream.
Brooke Chia Thao, who plays Tao’s mother, called Eastwood “a miracle in the Hmong community. Until this time, no one else has given us a chance to tell our own story.”
But some are skeptical, concerned that a film that relies on a clash of Asian stereotypes—model-minority geek meets menacing, gun-toting gang—will entrench those stereotypes even more.
Elvis Thao, a 26-year-old hip-hop artist and community activist from Milwaukee, is hopeful, although he was initially concerned about taking the role of Gangster #1 and perpetuating more stereotypes about Asian gangsters. Ultimately he took the risk.
“As long as I distance myself from the character I’m playing, I’m hoping they’ll see what Hmong have to offer [as actors],” Thao said.
A blog (eastwoodmovie-hmong. com/) has even sprung up, critiquing the movie and its cultural accuracy with comments on everything from implausible Hmong names to skewed rituals and customs. Costumes are also up for ridicule. A photo of the gangsters bears the caption: “What is the wardrobe department thinking? A Hmong gangbanger accessorizing! Hmong gangbangers everywhere, u should be upset!”
The actors struggle, too, with their culture being made into spectacle. Even though a real Hmong shaman was cast to play a ritualist, his expertise was overridden by the screenplay and the filming, which distorted the ceremonial scenes by making them inaccurately exotic
The Future is Hmong Producers
This emphasis on “getting it right” can be understood as coming from immigrants who have had more than their share of negative media images. Media coverage recurrently portrays Hmong as a poor fit for American society, focusing on sensationalized stories of Hmong murderers, gang conflict, teen marriage and cultural rigidity. The American populace is more likely to know about Lia Lee’s parents “failing” to comply with Lia’s doctors in The Spirit Catches You than about the Hmong woman Mee Moua, who has been elected more than once to the Minnesota state Senate.
Ever hopeful, actor Doua Moua, who also plays a gangster in Gran Torino, anticipates that the film will open the door to more opportunities for Hmong producers and directors. Thinking of the dozens of small production companies that make videos in Hmong language for community entertainment, he envisions giving back to his people by working with up-and-coming Hmong directors. The future, for Doua and many other Hmong, is not only to be cast by the Hollywood heavyweights but to also take a shot at becoming heavyweights themselves.
And some like Wa Yang, an actor with several years of Hollywood experience, hopes Gran Torino will pique a popular interest in Hmong.
“Maybe later,” Yang said, “a movie can be made that tells the story of how we ended up in the U.S.”
Louisa Schein (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches Anthropology, Women’s and Gender Studies and Asian American Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is writing a book about Hmong media. Ernesto M. Renda contributed to this article.