Friday, December 12, 2008

Gran Torino (are the Hmong ready for the spotlight?)

This week I had a chance to see the new Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. Despite his place as an American film icon-- Eastwood has received criticism from the Asian American community-- most prominently for the use of term "Chinaman" in Absolute Power.

When I saw the trailer for GT, I was curious to see how Eastwood (who also directed the picture) would portray the Hmong community central to the film. I came away from the screening moderately disappointed. Eastwood is strong as in his role as a Korean War vet tormented by his past and unimpressed by his present. Recently widowed with a spoiled batch of kids and grandchildren, Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood that has seen better days.

Detroit's automotive jobs are gone and the neighborhood is now a ghetto -- with a growing Hmong population. The movie follows Walt’s relationship with his new neighbors after the a local gang begins to pick on his new neighbor, Thao. The two lead Hmong characters, played by newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her do a fine job but Eastwood doesn't really spend any time on the plight of his Hmong neighbors.

The portrait of the Hmong is instead done with short, broad strokes -- they eat exotic foods, hardly speak English, and in the case of Thao (who Walt begins to call Toad) they can't find a job or get a life. I really hoped for a depiction that would help shed light on a community that has been underrepresented in Asian American and American media.

Critics will laud Eastwood for his performance and for his storytelling. I only wish he had given more depth to the Hmong Americans.

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