Once they were known for cultivating opium. Their stronghold was the "Golden Triangle" in the borderland of Thailand, Laos and Burma. They were the Hmong, and one of their leaders was the charismatic headman Lao-Tong.
At the height of the Vietnam War, in 1969, Swedish filmmaker PeŇ Holmquist traveled to South East Asia to make a film on Lao-Tong and the Hmong people. FROM OPIUM TO CHRYSANTHEMUMS documents Holmquist's return after 30 years. With new material filmed in Thailand, Laos, and the United States, and incorporating scenes from the 1969 documentary, the film shows how much has changed, and what has happened to the Hmong, both in Thailand and Laos, and in the United States.
In Lao-Tong's town of Maetho, high in the Thai Mountains, vast fields of chrysanthemums have replaced opium cultivation. Lao-Tong is now a respected elder of the community, but unlike 30 years ago, he seems withdrawn and reclusive. Reluctantly, though, he explains why, because of the harm opium was having on his community, he pushed to change the once profitable opium farming into a vegetable and flower business.
Lao-Tong also participates in a village divorce proceeding, during which the husband asks the elders to grant him a separation (a move that would force his wife to leave the village). Facing rejection not only by her family but also the community, and a life of loneliness and poverty, the wife proclaims that there's no place for a woman in Hmong customary law.
Retracing his earlier travels, Holmquist goes to Laos, where a mine sweeping crew is working to diffuse unexploded bombs (over 9 million may still be buried there). On the Plain of Jars he meets a Hmong man, addicted to opium and living as an opium farmer, whose brother moved to America after the war. In the U.S. Holmquist meets the brother in Sacremento, and using videotaped messages the two speak to each other for the first time in 20 years. In the process, they and we are offered a glimpse into their vastly different lives.
Living in Minneapolis, Crystal is a Hmong woman who tries to blend tradition with her new American lifestyle -- her decision to divorce her husband and to raise her child on her own represents a path that wouldn't have been available to her in her homeland.
FROM OPIUM TO CHRYSANTHEMUMS shows how, while coping with political and economic transformation, emigration and immigration, Hmong in Southeast Asia and America are struggling to balance efforts to preserve essential aspects of their culture, with the enormous changes forced upon them.
"Splendid! The genius of the film is its entree into a range of cultural, political, and economic issues. Fascinating... Well-executed... Beautifully made."—Ray Bucko, Creighton University, for Anthropology Review Database
2002 Association for Asian Studies Film Festival
2001 Aurora Asian Film Festival
2000 Amsterdam International Documentary Festival
2000 Toronto International Film Festival
"Highly Recommended! Tells the story of the Hmong in Thailand, Laos and the U.S., the challenges of breaking from the opium economy in Asia and the hopes of maintaining a survivable Hmong culture within the radically different social fabric of America. The film itself is technically excellent in all aspects, the cinematography simply outstanding."—Educational Media Reviews Online