We haven't often seen the words "Hmong" and "Hollywood" in the same sentence -- until this week.
"Gran Torino," which opens today in the Twin Cities, is the first major-studio film to feature several prominent roles for Hmong actors, including some with Twin Cities ties. With heavyweight Clint Eastwood as both director and star, the film is sure to draw national attention to an ethnic group well-known in Minnesota, but not all parts of the country.
Eastwood plays Walt, a cranky, racist Korean War vet who befriends the Hmong teenagers next door. He tries to protect them from gang violence even as he slings ethnic slurs every which way. While the story is focused on Eastwood, Hmong actors are in a good three-quarters of the scenes.
At an advance screening of the film Tuesday night, Dyane Hang Garvey of St. Paul got more excited than most people in the audience. As a technical adviser on the film, she spent two weeks on the set to ensure cultural realism in everything from food presentation to subtitle translation. This was the first time she had seen the final product. Her first impression?
"It's really honest, it doesn't make things artificially easier for anyone," said Garvey, who runs the small nonprofit Hmong Arts Connection.
Just as important to Garvey is that actual Hmong people were cast, even though some had no acting experience. Eastwood consulted with a Washington-based Hmong development agency on how to be sensitive and honest in portraying the ethnicity.
"They said, don't use non-Hmong actors. It's hard for someone who is not Hmong to be authentic," she said, citing an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which a Hmong family and shaman were played by Asian actors of other ethnicities.
When St. Paul filmmaker Bryan Vue first heard about the movie more than a year ago, "I thought it was a joke," he said. "I had to actually call the casting company in New York before I believed it was real."
Casting calls were held locally as well as in Fresno and Detroit, with most of the teenage and young-adult roles going to first-time actors. Minnesotans in the film include Bee Vang, of Robbinsdale, who plays neighbor boy Thao; Sonny Vue, of St. Paul, who plays gang leader Smokie, and former Minnesotan Doua Moua, who plays Thao's gang-member cousin and is pursuing an acting career in New York.
Minnesota is home to nearly 50,000 Hmong, more than any other state but California. The original script by Twin Cites writer Nick Schenk set "Gran Torino" here, but the story was shifted to Michigan when producers were offered a big tax break to film there.
Scars of war
As the film progresses, Walt sees himself as having more and more in common with his Hmong neighbors. A parallel in the film that Garvey found particularly relevant is that both Walt and the Hmong are recovering from traumas suffered in wartime -- Walt in Korea, and the Hmong in Southeast Asia, as U.S. allies who had to flee their homeland after the Communist victory.
Walt "regrets he's not more emotionally connected to his own children," Garvey said. "Many Hmong boys are having trouble finishing school because they don't have an emotional connection with their fathers. When you witness and contribute to death and destruction, it's hard to come back from that and be well-adjusted. And then you put these people into an environment, where everything from the language to the weather is different, to start all over again."
Bee Vang, the high school junior who plays bookish neighbor boy Thao, said working with Eastwood was a thrill, but "he told us he had to try to refrain from talking to us off the set" to help the newbie actors react authentically to him as Walt, tough-talking vet.
Vang said that he is excited about "Gran Torino" marking the big Hmong Hollywood debut, but that he never felt excluded because Hmong were missing from movies and TV shows he watched growing up.
"I never really thought about it much," he said. "It doesn't bother me. There are a lot of different kinds of people who aren't represented that way. I do think this movie will probably shed some light on the Hmong people and give more chances for our story to be told."
In Hmong and other Asian online chat rooms, criticisms of "Gran Torino" so far include: gang trouble isn't a part of all Hmong people's lives, some cultural traditions are exaggerated, and it is yet another story of a white man coming to the rescue of a minority.
Matt Saykao Thao, a senior at White Bear Lake High School, attended Tuesday's screening and saw what he viewed as a lot of unintentional humor.
"The way they tried to kill the chicken was funny," he said. "In real life it's not so dramatic. And the actors --Thao was so monotone and Sue's lines were so corny. When she said that the Hmong were originally hill people, mountain people would have sounded better. But if you can forget about the cultural exaggeration, the story is beautiful."
Filmmaker Vue, a big Eastwood fan, hasn't yet seen "Gran Torino" but has heard mixed reactions from fellow Hmong who have.
"I think some were hoping it would be more about the Hmong than Clint's character, and that's where the letdown comes," Vue said. "This film can only do the Hmong good. At least people will now have heard of us."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046 Star Tribune reporter Chao Xiong contributed to this report.