‘Gran Torino’ falls short on depiction of Hmong

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

For all their fascinating culture and history, Hmong rarely get depicted on film.

The Internet Movie Database, with listings for roughly 755,000 films and TV shows, lists only four movies featuring the Hmong language. Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, “Gran Torino,” should bring Hmong Americans and its culture to light. Unfortunately, it settles for superficial views.

Within 10 minutes of Eastwood being on screen, he curses his Hmong next-door neighbors as “swamp rats.”  Over the film’s 116 minutes, he’ll throw in such anti-Asian slurs as “jungle people,” “gooks,” “chinks,” “Charlie Chan,” and the all-purpose “barbarians.”

Walt Kowalski, Eastwood’s character, hisses hate incessantly through his clenched teeth.

We’re supposed to tell from inflection whether he’s simply being hateful or showing grudging admiration to his targets, but it all sounds the same. That’s the movie’s first mistake.

Kowalski fought in Korea and watched Koreans kill his friends. He killed back. He came home and worked on a Detroit assembly line. The world passed him by. His wife, his dog, and his vintage Ford Gran Torino became his life’s only treasures.

As the movie opens, Walt has lost his wife. He’s also lost his bearings. His sons grew up to be strangers. His granddaughter wears a belly ring to the funeral and gripes about her cell phone. She’s an impossibly obnoxious girl. Again and again, the script gives us characters that are simply too extreme to capture our belief or hold our interest.
The camera then follows Thao Vang Lor (played by Bee Vang), a Hmong teenager with a bad haircut and a bookish air. Latino gang-bangers harass him, and Lor laughs at their insults.

He has a sense of humor and a dedication to better himself. What he lacks is the street smarts needed to survive his rough neighborhood. A Hmong street gang drives by and bails him out from the Latino gang.

“Gran Torino” offers no distincition between the Black, Latino, or Hmong gangs. They all cruise, flash guns, flash secret hand signs, and talk like they learned their lingo out of somebody else’s movie. The narrative never explains the differences, if any, between Hmong and non-Hmong gang cultures.

Kowalski wonders where “Hmong” is and has to be told that “Hmong” is not a country. The Hmong forged their way through the ages without ever having a country to call their own. They settled in parts of Laos, Thailand, and China. They also came to the United States after President Nixon used them as covert soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Kowalski gets a Hmong 101 education from Lor’s sister, Sue Lor (Ahney Her).

Upfront and brassy, she shares her brother’s intelligence but bolsters it with confidence. She invites Kowalski to a Hmong barbecue at the house next door which she shares with her brother and several generations of family.

Kowalski wades through embarrassing mistakes, such as affectionately rubbing a small child on the head. Touching any Hmong on the head is a major gaffe. So is staring into someone’s eyes. As Kowalski learns, the film’s audience also learns. But the party feels like a step-by-step humanities lecture, not a fully fleshed social gathering.

Actors Vang and Her, both making their movie debuts, show they’re worth watching in the future. But it will take another film with a deeper focus, to show us Hmong,

American or otherwise, as people, and not simply as a people. (end)

“Gran Torino” plays at the Alderwood, Lincoln Square, Meridian 16, and other Seattle-area theaters. Check local listings for prices and showtimes.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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