Created on Sunday, 11 January 2009 23:56
By Stephen Magagnini
At least one group of Hmong Americans gives thumbs up to "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's urban drama and the first major Hollywood portrayal of Hmong families.
The film revolves around a bigoted Korean War veteran who takes on a gang-infested neighborhood. The movie scored well with a group of Sacramento Hmong, invited to see the local premiere Friday with The Bee, for accurately reflecting challenges they face in cities throughout America.
But many of the 16 Hmong viewers, from ages 12 to 87, said the movie missed an opportunity to deliver critical context: It didn't adequately explain why Hmong refugees wound up in the United States in the first place.
Except for the weaponry – Uzis apparently haven't been used by Hmong gangs here – "the gang activity in the movie is pretty realistic," said Neng Vang of the Hmong Leadership Network. "They're going to see one side of the Hmong culture and that is the gang side."
Viewers who know little about the Hmong could get a "very negative" impression, said Crystal Vang, a Sacramento-area activist. "Maybe they should have included news clips of the war against the communists back in Laos, how the Hmong escaped to avoid being killed and the refugee camps in Thailand."
The Hmong originated in China several thousand years ago and once had their own kingdom. But many were forced to grow opium and were later driven into Southeast Asia by Chinese emperors.
Most resettled in mountain villages in Laos. During the Vietnam War, tens of thousands were recruited by the CIA as guerrilla fighters. They fought communists until Laos and Vietnam fell in 1975.
Thousands escaped into Thailand, where they spent years in refugee camps before resettling in France, Australia and the United States.
Today there are more than 300,000 Hmong in the United States – about 25,000 in the Sacramento area. Most came with little education, but as they've assimilated, the community has grown to include college professors, doctors and teachers.
"Gran Torino" is set in Detroit. Hmong shamanism, traditional ceremonies and families struggling to get by in a sea of gang violence surround Eastwood's character, retired auto worker Walt Kowalski.
Kowalski, recently widowed, is an angry man. Besides his dog, Kowalski's prized possession is his prime 1972 Army green Ford Gran Torino.
"What are you going to do with it when you die?" asks Kowalski's granddaughter, who goes everywhere – including her grandmother's funeral – with her pierced belly button exposed.
Kowalski catches Thao, a Hmong teen living next door, trying to steal the car.
When he learns Thao is being pressured by a gang, Kowalski becomes vintage Eastwood vigilante.
"The movie's about Clint, it's not about Hmong history and culture," said Neng Vang, who has battled the Hmong gang problem in Sacramento for 18 years.
Kowalski stereotypes everyone. He peppers all races with racial slurs. But he comes to respect his Hmong neighbors.
In one scene he tells Thao's older sister Sue – who talks back to three African American punks threatening her – "trying to get yourself killed? I thought you Asian girls were supposed to be smart."
When Sue invites him to a barbecue he says, "keep your hands off my dog." He also commits a serious cultural breach, touching Hmong kids on the head. Hmong believe the head is sacred; it's where the soul resides.
Kowalski tearfully admits, "I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled, rotten family."
T.T. Vang, a Hmong radio host, said the Kowalski character reminded him of a landlord he had in Rhode Island. "The majority of Americans see us the way Clint sees us," particularly older Americans, said the 55-year-old Vang.
The Hmong who saw the movie Friday did not appear too bothered by its racial slurs. Instead, some elders said depictions of Hmong ceremonies were too casual. Houa Xiong, an 87-year-old shaman, said true shamans hold birth ceremonies by the front door and flip buffalo horns differently.
Her four grandchildren – Amy, Yeng, Andy and Pashia – said the movie's violence was beyond anything they'd heard about in Sacramento.
"It's kind of messed up, Hmong people turning against their own culture," said Andy, a 14-year-old high school freshman. "I've never known gangs raping their own cousin. And if you don't want to join a gang they don't beat you up."
Younger members of the group generally thought the movie might turn Hmong kids away from gangs. But parents said if Hmong youths are pressured into joining gangs – or sexually assaulted – they don't believe there's anywhere for them to turn.
"My son was going into Thao's footprints, but we don't know how to get help," said Alie Yang, 39, of the Hmong Leadership Network. "Five years ago he got jumped at Burbank by Mien and Mexican kids and ran away from home and skipped school for three months."
She tried to get him counseling, "but if your child refuses it, there's nothing you can do."
Back in Laos, Hmong clan leaders would meet to resolve problems and make offenders pay fines. Here, however, parents have often totally lost control, T.T. Vang said.
"If it involves gangs, nobody wants to touch it," Neng Vang added, particularly if sexual abuse is involved. "Part of it is pride and saving face."
Added Crystal Vang, "The family's afraid the rapist would get out and come back in a few years and kill you."
Neng Vang said activists are trying to attack truancy, improve the gang hotline and build after-school programs.
"We're looking to change Hmong culture from the bottom up, through education and prevention, so we don't have to be in a situation like Thao and Sue are in," he said.
In "Gran Torino," gangsters are ultimately made to pay. In real life, though, this story wouldn't be over, some Hmong viewers said.
"They have other relatives and friends that are going to go after Thao and his family – it's not going to have a happy ending," said Alie Yang.