Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bee Vang on Gran Torino and Radio Racism

In this op ed piece Bee Vang draws connections between race humor in Gran Torino and on a Minnesota radio station whose slur song caused an uproar in the Twin Cities.

Click here.

Gran Torino Cast at University of Minnesota

This two part television program shows major members of the Hmong cast and crew of Gran Torino commenting on the production just after its release. Click here. For part two click here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lead Actor Bee Vang Speaks Out about Race and Masculinity

In this exclusive interview with Hmong media expert Louisa Schein, Bee Vang who played the teen Thao in Gran Torino, talks about his reactions to the script's negative portrayal of Hmong and to playing a passive, feminine character and about the problems of Asian visibility in Hollywood.

Bee Vang on Race and Acting Gran Torino’s Hmong Lead Speaks Out
Interview by Louisa Schein, March 26, 2010

LS: Talk about yourself and your interests growing up. Especially your exposure to film and acting.

BV: I was born in Fresno, but moved to the Twin Cities as a baby. I remember getting interested in movies at an early age. But my love for film, when I began to appreciate films on a different level, really started at age 9. My family loved to watch Asian movies that had been dubbed in Hmong. We didn’t pay any attention to American movies. We watched Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese, Thai, Bollywood. It wasn’t until much later that I heard of anyone like Brad Pitt or George Clooney...

LS: Do you remember being conscious of race in those early years?

BV: No, not when I was younger, but it might have had something to do with the fact that I grew up watching predominantly Asian films. Living in America, though, it was inevitable that I would start watching some movies made in the West. From my early teens, I remember Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creature, Rambo and other war movies. I found the war movies ridiculous: too much action.

Then when I saw Heaven and Earth - the Oliver Stone movie based on a Vietnamese woman’s memoir of the war - I felt so critical of it as a white man’s story about a white savior. I never wanted the Vietnamese woman to give in to Tommy Lee Jones – I was always for her independence. And when she spoke broken English with him, it made me more angry because it emphasized her lack of power. I always preferred films about Asians in the original language with subtitles...

LS: Did you identify the movie with your own history at all?

BV: Not really. It just seemed like another war movie. The author hadn’t intended to make a movie – she was writing a memoir. The process of turning it into a movie felt like turning it into lies. I objected to the way the cinematography – sweeping shots of landscapes - made the actual war seem more beautiful and diminished that it was a horrible and terrifying experience for her.

I remember thinking, though, that if it hadn’t been for the war in Vietnam, there wouldn’t have been all those war movies and Asians would never have had as much of a presence in Hollywood. Ironically, the war created acting opportunities for us -- even if the roles were undeveloped and we stood for the enemy most of the time.

LS: How did Americans’ chronic confusion of Southeast Asian refugees with Asian enemies play for you personally?

BV: Well it always made me think that we, as Asians, had to be saved, but also saved from each other. The only way that we could be saved was through Western intervention. Of course, my response at an early age was that we were backwards, cruel and had to be whitened. I kind of took that on, but at the same time, it was a ridiculous idea to me!

LS: So what went through your head when you started to hear about Gran Torino?

BV: I never thought I would try out. I heard about the story and the “sides” – the excerpts from the script that were used for auditions—and I was just really repulsed by what I read. I tried to make sense of the characters and their lines. But there were things I couldn’t figure out about the relations between Walt and the Hmong characters. For instance, at some point Thao tells Walt “Go ahead. I don’t care if you insult me or say racist things, because you know what? I’ll take it.” I didn’t understand why a character like Thao would say that. Why wouldn’t he object to being insulted? What does “taking it” even mean? What was intended by the screenwriter or was this just careless writing?

LS: The story, as we know, takes place in Detroit and centers on a white man who is probably dying and doesn’t have much time left. His Asian neighbors are a backdrop to his search for redemption from acts in the Korean war—

BV: Of course, those Asians are nothing but FOBs or youth on the streets killing each other...

LS: Right. So Walt has to teach them the “right” way to behave, and to save the good ones from the bad. In the process, he valiantly takes the fall. Talk about your impressions of the plot, the script itself.

BV: The thing is, the story can’t take place without those Hmong characters, especially mine. But in the end, it’s Walt that gets glorified. We fade out in favor of his heroism. I felt negated by the script and by extension in my assuming the role. It’s almost like a non-role. Strange for a lead...

LS: What about the script’s portrayal of Thao’s masculinity?

BV: Well first off, the girlfriend part is totally crazy....Walt and the gangsters and the grandma – all of them have nothing but insults about Thao’s manliness – or lack thereof. He doesn’t cut it in any way and he’s not super-hot. So why is it that the gorgeous girl decides to pick him over all the other guys?

LS: It sends an incoherent message, doesn’t it? BV: That the dumb, passive, quiet, loner guy can still get the best girl. It pained me that Thao let his masculinity suffer so badly over the course of the story. LS: The only manhood he gains is bestowed by Walt, and that’s pretty dubious even up to the end...And how did you feel about the character descriptions?

BV: The Thao character was described as an “Asian Johnny Depp.” “A slight, slender Hmong boy with long hair and eyelashes.” OK, but I didn’t understand the function of those looks in the story. Also I was annoyed at the comparing of Asian men to a white standard of beauty. I mean [chuckles] who’s to say we’re not even better than Johnny’s looks?

LS: How did you interpret this in terms of your own look?

BV: I have no idea what look they cast me for. I know I don’t look like Johnny Depp. And on set
they didn’t do anything about my looks, just told me to come as I was...it’s still a mystery to me.

LS: So you were uneasy about the lines and character descriptions. Why did you audition and
ultimately take the part?

BV: Friends kept pushing me to try out. I didn’t take it seriously. Didn’t think I’d get the part. But when I was called back for another round of auditioning, I realized I wanted to be part of the hype, because this would become a great cultural event of our time, especially for Hmong. Most importantly, my intentions were, as I continued to audition and do my best, to try to improve on the script and the ways Hmong were portrayed. I wanted to create a character that people could love. I decided to commit to developing the role of Thao, making him more complex and credible. I imagined a guy who would chafe at his subordination more. So even when he had to obey, he did it with more attitude.

LS: Did you feel you succeeded in creating this character?

BV: I added a lot of intonation and gestures to try to give Thao some dignity. For instance, when my sister is offering me to work for Walt, I raised my voice to a shout to indicate I hated the idea of slaving for Walt. That outburst wasn’t in the script. But most of the script was not very open to interpretation and it was premised on his not having any dignity. He needs to be clueless and have no self-respect in order for the white elder man to achieve his savior role. He has to hang his head and absorb abuse. So it makes me wonder how a character like Thao could bring any change to Walt.

LS: Were you able to draw on parts of yourself or your experience for this role?

BV: Well that was the idea, from what I could tell. The production process didn’t include rehearsals or coaching. Eastwood didn’t want us to consult with him. He just wanted us to be ourselves. The plan was for us to be so-called “natural actors,” just stepping out of our lives and into the frames. This way the production could move efficiently. So we didn’t get the scripts until a week before the shooting started and had no prep time to use the method acting process of getting into the psychology of the character.

LS: What did this mean in terms of your process, then?

BV: The roadblock for me was that I couldn’t identify with Thao as the demeaned boy that he was. All the while, hearing that my performance was to be as a so-called “natural,” I found myself resisting the character more and more. So I had to draw instead on my best acting skills to counter my feelings toward the directorial style of Eastwood. I had to put aside my doubts about the character, and create a contradictory guy who was sometimes just submissive and sometimes
struggled to stand up for himself. I wanted him to have depth and complexity. I had to make that up myself...to the extent that it was possible within the script.

LS: How did you feel about the result?

BV: That’s a difficult one. I know I gave it my all, but at the same time, it doesn’t look like stellar acting to me. I just wished that perhaps the physical acting aspect would at least be recognizable. Also, it’s funny, when I watch the final product of Gran Torino, I often have the impression that the takes they chose for each scene were my weakest. I’m not sure what that’s about.

LS: Say more about the role itself.

BV: But then I think that maybe it’s not about the quality of my acting. It’s the fact of the character being unsympathetic because of his weakness. It’s an odd thing, as a first time actor, to have to step into a role that’s disparaged by the script and humiliated by the other characters. Playing him well is like making a deal with the devil. To the extent that I did a good job, I reinforced that image of effeminate Asian guys who are wimps, geeks and can’t advocate for themselves.

LS: Does Thao become a man in your opinion? Does he get stronger?

BV: I worked on that. It wasn’t easy because the scenes were shot completely out of sequence so it was hard to get a sense of the continuity and the progression. I tried to show Thao’s change through the physicality of my performances. I hung my head less and less. In the barbershop scene, I made my voice get a bit raspier and more like Eastwood’s as they tried to “man me up.” I threw in some sassy gestures. By the time I was getting the job at the construction site, I added more of a swagger to my walk. Things like that.

LS: So did this mean he was achieving manhood?

BV: I’m pretty iffy about that. For instance, at the end of the barbershop scene, the humor comes from the fact that Thao doesn’t know what he’s saying. He supposedly tries to talk like the older white men, but stupidly comes up with a line that makes him out to be an object of male gang- rape or something. What the barber and Walt laugh at him for is that he doesn’t even know what he’s saying. This relies on a kind of a dumb refugee image. The line he says – ‘boy does my ass hurt from all the guys at my construction job’ – is just nonsensical to him. Only the white guys get the homophobic joke. So, Thao really doesn’t grow in this scene; for some reason, the scene ends and segues to the construction site scene. Only there does Thao put what he learned to use, which I find is strange. This kind of scene could have been done so much better. The script would have been so much tighter if Thao had understood what he was saying and come up with a line that showed that part of his becoming a man was being able to craft his speech to show it. How does that laughable line indicate he’s ready to go get a construction job?

LS: Did you feel like you were playing Hmong in Gran Torino? At what points in the story, if any, did you feel you drew on your Hmong identity to play the role?

BV: I know there were a lot of Hmong references and scenes in the film, but I didn’t feel it in my character. What I felt was being called on to perform the pan-Asian stereotype of the submissive, kow-towing geek with no girlfriend. Plus there’s no real reason for us to be Hmong in the script. We could be any minority. And not only that, but Walt is always confusing us with Koreans and other Asians. Even with the enemies he fought in Korea. So Hmong culture, Hmong identity didn’t end up seeming so relevant.

LS: How do you feel about what audiences reflect back to you regarding the film?

BV: Y’know a middle-aged white guy was telling me the thing he loved most about Gran Torino was the interactions between Walt and the Hmong people – that the film "rings true" to him in some kind of way. A lot of people say this. Well -- “rings true” for who? Maybe to people who live in a world where whites are the only heroes. Or to those who take the film as a documentary about Hmong culture. Even other Asians do this a lot. And then they tell me how much they learned about my culture. Meanwhile, what a lot us Hmong feel is that the film is distorting and un-true. I guess watching Gran Torino is really subjective. People get all sorts of different things out of it.

LS: What’s next for you?

BV: I have a lot of ideas. I’m going to study filmmaking and pursue my acting. And I’m also going to study Chinese and see where it all takes me. Whatever I do, I want to keep social justice work in the mix.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Looking Gran Torino in the Eye: A Review

This review looks how some Hmong audiences view Gran Torino. It covers the discomforts and lack of recognition of Hmong viewers upon seeing their society and culture distorted in the film. And it talks about the high stakes of such a movie circulating when Hmong are so unknown in American society.

Read the review here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gran Torino Hmong Cast Discussion

This two-part video, aired on Hmong television in California, shows six Hmong members of the cast of Gran Torino discussing their experiences of the film and answering audience questions at University of Minnesota in February 2009. Featuring leads, Bee Vang and Ahney Her, and other actors, the discussion covers experiences on set, anecdotes about Eastwood, and controversies over the representation of Hmong culture.