Clint Eastwood, who looked at one of the most famous battles of World War II through the eyes of doomed Japanese soldiers in the 2006 film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” is now lookng at Asian Americans and racism in an upcoming movie, “Gran Torino.”
Eastwood plays a racist Korean War veteran and retired Ford factory employee, Walt Kowalski, who’s been beaten down by life. The only two steadfast things in his life are his 1972 Gran Torino, an artifact from the glory days of Ford muscle, and his M-1 rifle, an artifact from the glory days of American muscle. Everything else around him is going to hell: his wife has recently died, he’s estranged from his grown kids, and to his dismay, his rundown neighborhood is becoming over-run by Asians.
The incoming foreigners are Hmong, not Korean. Eastwood’s character gets to know the Hmong family that moves in next door after their 16-year-old son tries to steal his Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. Predictably, Eastwood at first hates them but then grows close, and protects them against the gang.
The movie’s trailer shows some typical interactions between a cranky white man and black neighborhood punks and scary-looking Asian gang members. Knowing Eastwood, I bet the plot is more complicated than the predictable scenes in the trailer, though.
This is the first time a Hollywood movie has taken a deep dive into the Hmong community, so it’s an opportunity to teach Americans about their history and culture, and of the AAPI culture of second generation Hmong Americans.
Besides Eastwood, the movie stars a group of first-time actors, most if not all Hmong (no hiring of non-ethnically accurate actors just for the right “talent” or “star power” a la “Memoirs of a Geisha”), and the casting was featured in a series of interviews in a Hmong news site, Suab Hmong Radio:
Bee Vang, a 16-year-old high student already taking college courses in Minneapolis, plays the boy that Eastwood catches trying to steal his car. He never dreamed he’d be acting in a major motion picture.
Born in Fresno, and now from the Minneapolis suburbs, he never thought he would go into acting. In fact, he was buried in his high school books, already taking courses at the University of Minnesota. He was planning to go pre-med.
Bee thought medicine was his passion, but “I was hoping that getting this part was trying to tell me to follow my other passions.”
Ahney Her, who’s also 16, plays the part of the older sister who befriends Eastwood’s character. She’s from Michigan, where the movie takes place. Of the Hmong actors, she’s the only one with performing experience, mostly in hip-hop dance.
She happened to be at a soccer tournament in Detroit when she heard about the Gran Torino auditions. One of the last to audition, she never expected a thing. “Who would think that some random girl like me would get it? With all the Hmong that auditioned in Minnesota…?”
She also served as a translator on the set. She says she never thought about it before, but she may start acting in Hmong movies. (Who knew there’s an industry of Hmong movies? Cool.)
The Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountain regions of Southeast Asia in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. In the early 1960s, during the dawn on the war in Vietnam, the CIA recruited Hmong men to fight a secret guerrilla war against the Communists, fighting under the leadership of General Vang Pao.
But when the US pulled out of Vietnam in April of 1975, the Hmong were left high and dry. Many were the target of retribution by the Communist Pathet Lao government which took over in ’75, and thousands are still stuck in refugee camps in Thailand. From Wikipedia:
Beginning in December 1975, the first Hmong/Mong refugees arrived in the U.S., mainly from refugee camps in Thailand; however, only 3,466 were granted asylum at this time under the Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. In May 1976, another 11,000 were allowed to enter the United States, and by 1978 some 30,000 Hmong/Mong people had immigrated. This first wave was made up predominantly of men directly associated with General Vang Pao’s secret army. It was not until the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 that families were able to come in the U.S., becoming the second-wave of Hmong/Mong immigrants. Today, approximately 270,000 Hmong/Mong people reside in the United States, the majority of whom live in California (65,095 according to the 2000 U.S. census), Minnesota (41,800), and Wisconsin (33,791). Fresno, California; Eureka, California; Stockton, California; Sacramento, California; Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota; Lowell, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Wausau, Wisconsin have especially high concentrations of Hmong/Mong people.
“Gran Torino” is set to open in January; I’m looking forward to seeing how Eastwood approaches this story. Even though he started his career as an action star, he’s become a respected (and very buy) director, guiding a string of powerful films such as “Bird,” “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” the Iwo Jima films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” and most recently, “Changeling.”
That’s a pretty good track record. I expect “Gran Torino” will take its place in the Eastwood pantheon.
UPDATE Dec. 15: Read Angry Asian Man’s review of “Gran Torino.”