December 14, 2008

(Movie) News You Need to Know: Hmong Realities and Hoop Dreams

"Gran Torino Connects Hmong Minnesotans with Hollywood"

In the Twin Cities Daily Planet a couple of weeks ago, Lisa Peterson-De La Cueva wrote a really interesting piece about how Hmong culture is being portrayed in Clint Eastwood's upcoming movie Gran Torino, which I expect will get at least three Oscar nominations.

The film was written by a Minnesotan and it's meant to be about Minnesotans. Legend has it that local construction worker and fruit truck driver Nick Schenk, who had previously never had a screenplay produced, but had been involved with short-lived programs like Comedy Central's "Let's Bowl" (which was filmed here at some really random bowling alleys - White Bear Bowl, anyone?), wrote Gran Torino with a pen and paper at Grumpy's in Northeast (it's a local dive bar, for those of you who don't know Minneapolis). He's including his friend Dave Johannson as a co-writer, even though according to Schenk, "Dave sells furnaces for the gas company."

These guys couldn't be more amateur if they tried - which is awesome, even though it will inevitably lead to Diablo Cody comparisons, who outrageously won Best Screenplay last year for a little movie she wrote here while sitting at the Starbucks inside a Target in Plymouth or somewhere. Anyway, you can learn more about Schenk's fascinating story in a recent L.A. Times article. He sounds like a cool guy, even though he's seemingly unbothered by the dirty little secret he's about to expose about Minnesota: "When I was working construction, I'd meet a lot of guys like Walt Kowalski."

Finally we can put "Minnesota Nice" to its long overdue rest! Or not...

Like Juno, Gran Torino was originally set in Minnesota but it wasn't filmed here. Entirely for tax reasons, Eastwood moved production of the movie to Michigan and lightly modified the story for the new location. Here's the problem: Gran Torino is about Eastwood vs. Hmong teenagers, and Michigan's Hmong population is a tiny fraction of Minnesota's (more Hmong live here than any state except California).

And so, money that was saved in moving filming to Michigan was immediately spent in flying Hmong actors and actresses in from Minnesota, as well as Dyane Hang Garvey, the on-set Hmong cultural consultant (and main focus of the article). I give Eastwood major credit for his decision to so accurately portray Hmong culture (albeit Hmong culture in Minnesota, not Michigan), which is apparently the result of his always faithful commitment to filming screenplays exactly as they are written.

According to the Daily Planet article, "A few scenes in the movie required a deep understanding and knowledge of Hmong culture to produce." Considering that Hmong population is fairly segregated in St. Paul here, I'm impressed that Schenk knew Hmong culture well enough to write about it - and that Eastwood and Warner Brothers went to such lengths to try and portray it accurately. Needless to say, I can't wait to see this movie.


"Basketball Players Still Bound by 'Hoop Dreams'"

This is a brief update
by Sara Olkon from the Chicago Tribune about the subjects of Hoop Dreams . I feel like I've read recent profiles on William Gates and Arthur Agee because I knew that Gates was now a pastor, but I had no idea there existed a follow-up documentary called Hoop Realities from 2006. Has anybody seen or heard of this? It played at the Virginia Film Festival last year but information about it is less than scarce. Anyway, the article may be interesting if you're wondering what Gates and Agee have been doing for the last 14 years. Here's the bittersweet short version: neither of them ever played in the NBA.


  1. "Gran Torino" surprised the hell out of me and is one of my favorite films of the year hands down. Congratulations to the screenwriter for such a magnificent first effort. I hope he ends up with an Oscar nomination for this. It's incredible.

  2. It would be interesting if he did, Matthew. Here's a an update and picture of him, and that very subject comes up.

    I'm anxiously, anxiously awaiting this movie.

  3. Hey Daniel-

    Honestly, I didn't know much about Gran Torino besides it involving Clint Eastwood and a gun.

    But after reading this it makes me wonder if the idea for the film came out of the Hmong controvesy's in Wisconsin the past few years. Mainly...

    This one & This one.

  4. Um, somebody help me out, here. I've never seen the word Hmong before. Que?

  5. Oh, and I actually watched that "Let's Bowl" show. It's funny that I like bowling so much in popular culture but give could a rat's rump about the PBA. I guess I'm just more of a fan of the Lebowski type of bowling culture.

  6. That's why I'm here, Fletch. The Hmong are an ethnic group originally from China and Southeast Asia. They were used (see: exploited) by the U.S. during Vietnam, and ultimately lost their homeland. Thousands came as refugees to the U.S. in the 70's and 80's, mostly to Minnesota and California (and some to Wisconsin, as Fox notes). If you're interested in more background on the Hmong and Lao people, try to get your hands on Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) (or just read my review). It was just shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

    Remember when the PBA used to be on TV all the time? Not that I watched it anyway.

    Fox, that was huge, huge news around here. There has always been a simmering tension between Minnesotans and the refugees who arrive here, and that busted the whole thing wide open - both the original shooting and the revenge. It's horrific, and I have little doubt that Schenk's story was not influenced by his or his co-worker's (as he suggests) opinions on the situation here.

  7. Valuable resource of Hmong news summaries...

  8. Thanks for the tip, ng2000. And as another follow-up for those interested in learning more about the Hmong - this article from yesterday's NYT.


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