By Anthony James
In the fall of 2005, 36-year-old Chai Vang was convicted of first-degree murder and condemned to serve the rest of his remaining life in prison after shooting and killing six hunters in northern Wisconsin. It was an incident that created both shock and tension within Minnesota’s Asian community, where Vang and his family worked and lived. Was this a case of a maniac, vengeful killer or self defense? In the screening of his newest documentary film, Open Season, Twin Cities native Mark Tang hopes to illuminate the background of the Vang trial to encourage discussion within local communities.
On a cloudy March evening, a crowd of both students and adults packed a small meeting room in Augsburg College’s student center, curious for a first glimpse at the film’s rough cut which Tang co-directed with Lu Lippold. Sponsors of the event included Augsburg’s Pan Asian Student Services and Generous Alternatives, a local organization that encourages respectful interactions between people of different cultural backgrounds. The film, though completed, is in the stages of seeking funding in order hopefully to be shown on public television across Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as used in academic and community environments as a catalyst to open conversation.
The project itself contains a bit of background story. As many in Midwest may already know, when the Wisconsin deaths first broke national news the media headlines were rampant with racial overtones. The perspectives of the case quickly became split; some demanded vengeance, others begged for understanding. In St. Paul Vang’s family and Hmong leaders, though acknowledging grief for the victim’s families, pleaded for equality and consideration as Chai Vang’s side of the story was given.
Mark Tang, a Chinese American, witnessed the tensions between the local communities and knew that someone had to go to Wisconsin capture the unfolding case. When the call went unanswered, Tang packed his gear and headed to Sawyer County, Wisconsin. The project wasn’t new territory for Mark; as a filmmaker who has directed many short programs and films on Chinese American perspectives, his long-standing repertoire includes documenting Asian American history in the rural Midwest and his own return to native Hong Kong in 1997.
Tang’s latest project, Open Season, fuses both the intimate portraits of the victim’s families and Hmong families affected with the chilling drama of the courtroom. From the interviews and court video, it became plain that the whole truth of the case was not made evident or even sought. The Vang family, while not asked to testify, spoke of how much the trial’s defense distorted the former national guardsman’s personality and background in order to plead insanity. Families of the victims noted that race should not have been a factor in the case, but the media used it to gain attention and controversy.
In the courtroom, the appalling infusion of bias became apparent: the decision to keep the case in Wisconsin, the all white jury, the lack of a Hmong translator, the short-sightedness of the defense. Towards the film’s climax, Vang recounted on the witness stand the racial slurs that were thrown at him by the surrounding hunters, one of the hunters blocking his exit, and the fear of being killed as he saw a bullet whizz next to him. To Vang, they didn’t want him to leave, they wanted him dead. For the viewers, one of the most shocking revelations was from an interview from a Wisconsin DNR official who noted that many white hunters frequently would chase Asian hunters off public land under the lie that they are trespassing private ground.
Mark Tang hopes such a powerful exposé would not be confined to the reel, but will also be the first step of an open forum between Asian Americans and Caucasians. The Augsburg screening was followed by a group discussion much how the sponsors hoped to utilize in the future. For many who commented, the events didn’t become solely a Hmong issue, but one that the whole community had to deal with then and now. One commenter was Gran Torino star Bee Vang who noted that hopefully the Chai Vang story would not end with the Hmong or Asian Americans in the Twin Cities, but will reach across the aisle and help heal the scars that have been ridden in the past.
For more on Mark Tang and his production company at his Web site: www.passionfruitfilms.org.