Bee Vang’s Experience Making Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood

Posted on January 25, 2011 by

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[Last edited:  March 16, 2012]

Gran Torino.  I didn’t like it at all as a representation for Asians and Asian-Americans to popular audiences.  I wrote about how the Hmong “characters” were nothing more than walking wikipedia entries.   They were nothing more than lifeless, passive victims.  They lacked any character or individuality at all.

Today, at a public screening and lecture in Long Beach, I actually got to meet the actor who played the lead character in Gran Torino, Thao, Bee Vang.

As I was sitting there in the mini auditorium, it took me a while to process that the young person speaking, Bee Vang, was the actual lead character from the movie.

A quick glance at the wikipedia entry on Gran Torino wouldn’t help you know this at all.  Notice how Clint’s name is all over the place.  Apparently, he’s the only one “starring” in the movie.

This wikipedia entry is actually symbolic of Bee’s experience working on Gran Torino: he felt invisible, silenced, disconnected, while participating in the production of this movie.  He seemed more than happy to deconstruct the stereotypes and poor representation of the Hmong and larger pan-Asian community.

Bee Vang is a young, but sharp 19 year old, first-year undergrad in International Politics at Brown University.  He’d grown up in Fresno, Minnesota, and actually had been on various panels discussing Gran Torino. He made the movie when he was 16 in the Summer of 2008.

He started by recalling an episode when the Gran Torino production crew had a baseball game.  According to Bee, none of the Hmong actors were invited to the game because the crew assumed that the Hmong actors were Hmong immigrants.  As immigrants, they would have no idea what baseball was, so the production team thought.

Hollywood R & D FTW.  Not.

Kinda shocking unfolding of events given that Hollywood is considered to be “liberal”, the production that they were working on was ostensibly about the Hmong.

He said that the power of the Hmong actors to portray their own story as Hmong people was severely limited.  He said that some of the rituals were blatantly wrong, which the actors tried to point out.  In one scene involving a ritual, Bee talked about how the Monks were not supposed to touch a baby on the head at all.  What did they do in the scene?  They touched the baby’s head!

sarcasm

No matter, said the Gran Torino production team.  People in the audience would probably miss it, and it wouldn’t matter in the long run, right? And besides the angle of the camera looked pretty!  No need for cultural accuracy when you got shots that look all Asiany and ritually and East-y and superstitious-y.

/sarcasm

He also talked about how as mostly amateur, young actors, their suggestions were likely to be met with negative, dismissive responses.

Even though they had a “cultural consultant” on set, it doesn’t seem like she had much influence.

I gathered that she was probably around to make sure that the production team didn’t blatantly, obviously eff anything up, but that would be it.  She wasn’t there to actually participate in the making of the story.

Professor Louisa Schein, a professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, who has been working with Hmong communities for over 20 years was also at this screening and public forum.  She talked about how she’d kept an eye on the script.  She gave suggestions to the Hmong actors about how to “complexify” or add personal depth to their characters.  However, she reported that those suggestions and concerns were not taken into consideration.  There were other priorities.

You know, like Clint Eastwood’s burgeoning career as a director and savior of weak ass AzNs.

After the movie was made, Bee would scoff at the director and writers’ suggestions that “we did our best to represent Hmong culture.”

Bee talked about the restrictions to developing his character.  He recalled a particularly resonant line that embemized the experience of shooting Gran Torino “I’ll take whatever you throw at me” or something to that effect.  It’s a quote that embodied an invisibility, and struck on the annals of the invisible Asian male in American media.

He talked about how the movie shooting was rushed:  they were expected to shoot for 37 days, but cut it down to 27 days.  He’d found out he got the part in July 2008, and was told within a week to be in Detroit.  The speed at which the production moved made it difficult for the actors particularly for himself to “get into” or develop a character.

Hearing him describe the speed of production synced pretty well with my initial observations of the movie.  In my initial watching of the movie, the characters seemed to be nothing more than vacant walking stereotypes.  Sure enough, that’s all they really had time to perform:  a series of lines written by some white guy’s idea of the Hmong experience.

Whenever he asked for suggestions from Clint himself during filming, he talked about how Clint told him merely to “act naturally.”  He wasn’t sure what he meant by that.  “Act naturally” was code for “just be Hmong” as if all Hmong were the same and/or that there is a way to actually “be” Hmong. When he attempted to add his own interpretive spin giving his character deeper complexity, he was told by Clint to “stick to the script.”

This stick-to-the-script mantra kind of contradicted what Bee Vang noted was Clint’s post-production bragging about “letting” Hmong actors “improvise their lines.”

I gathered that Bee and the Hmong’s working conditions were probably less than ideal relative to standards in Hollywood blockbusters.  The Hmong, a people that get very little attention in the media, if at all, theoretically had an opportunity to educate and let people know about their subjectivities.  However, thanks to Clint and crew there might as well not have been any opportunity.

After the screening and forum, I was able to get closer with Bee Vang.  I asked about the chemistry during filming, Bee talked about how Clint maintained his distance from him.  Clint isn’t known for being talkative, he thought.  Despite this projected persona and reputation, Clint was quick to meet and talk with other people in the production team that weren’t Hmong.

As a result of this systematic stunting of this stultifying of creativity, stunning invisibility he talked about mini-resistances he employed during the movie.  He talked about giving “extra snap” at Clint Eastwood in a scene where he was taken to a barber shop where Clint trades misogynies with some other white actor.

Also in that vein of resistance, he talked about how a grandmother’s quote in Hmong was left untranslated in a DVD version.  The quote explained the complexity of the Hmong condition.  Essentially it was a quote critical of the premise of the movie that said  “well our men are gangsters and/or non-existant maybe because you made them that way.”