In the past week I saw three of the “big” movies released for the awards season: Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Gran Torino. All three were so good that when I say Gran Torino was far and away the best of the bunch, it’s saying a lot.
My daughter told me it was depressing. The Chronicle said it was funny. To me it was neither, but whether depressing, funny, good, or bad, nothing would’ve prevented me from seeing it, because it was set in a Detroit neighborhood with a large Hmong population. As readers of my review of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down know, I’m fascinated by the Hmong, a nomadic tribe from the hills of Asia. Many Hmong migrated to the U.S. after fighting on “our” side in the Vietnam war; they were subsequently hunted down, tortured, and killed by the Viet Cong after the Americans left. The U.S. government settled them in a few locales, one of which is Detroit.
Gran Torino isn’t funny in any usual sense of the word, but, as the Chron capsule review says, Clint Eastwood is often funny as a bitter, bigoted, self-righteous old man who just lost his wife. He snarls, he growls, he aims deadly rays of contempt at stranger and son alike. Sometimes he overdoes it, but for the most part it feels right. Having fought in Korea, and finding himself doomed to an old age surrounded by people he calls “gooks,” Walt mutters or yells out epithets for Asians I’ve never even heard before. Little love is lost between Walt and the old lady next door, who gives as good as she gets, in her language. Neither understands what the other is saying, but these two old coots understand each other very well.
It’s surprising, though completely movie-predictable, when Walt gets involved with the family, guided through their culture by the teenage daughter Sue. It’s the dumplings and noodles that cement the relationship. (It’s always the pasta, isn’t it?)
That Walt comes to a grudging acceptance of a Hmong family is the only predictable thing that happens: the climax of Gran Torino, and the events leading up to it, come as a surprise, or even shock. To say more about the plot might spoil it, so I’ll just add that, for me, the film was the opposite of depressing — it’s a gorgeous, heroic, and redemptive story.
I’d been curious to see how a Hollywood movie would portray the Hmong. In one scene the camera pans the street, revealing the neighborhood through Walt’s baby blue eyes. He looks with dismay upon one dilapidated house after another — peeling paint, crumbling roofs, unkempt yards.We know, of course, what this means to Walt: that his neighbors are lazy, negligent, morally inferior. What the panning camera can’t show is that the Hmong, nomadic for generations, are mystified by hammers, nails, and home repair; their skills are in cultivating the land, and creating intricate clothing and costumes. Their values are spiritual: they spend a great deal of time enacting rituals, caring for the soul rather than the house and yard. Thus, Sue’s brother Thao is fascinated by Walt’s tools, and hungers to learn how to use them. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if audiences realize why their homes aren’t well-maintained, or if they leave the theater still seeing the Hmong through Walt’s eyes, believing the dilapidated houses shelter lazy people.
In an entirely different area, I also wonder about Eastwood’s choice in naming his main character Kowalski. Is he echoing Stanley and Stella on purpose? Stanley Kowalski comes off far from heroic at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Maybe the naming is a way of placing Walt firmly in the working class; or maybe it’s simply cinematic homage. It might be pure coincidence, but, from what I hear, nothing Clint Eastwood does is coincidental.
Oh dear. I see I forgot to mention the car…Walt’s precious Gran Torino, from which the movie gets its name. Coveted by everyone, the car plays such a key role in the story that Eastwood made the movie its namsake.
I’d planned on seeing a few more “big” movies this month, but after GT I have no desire to see anything too soon. This is the kind of film I want to process for awhile: I want to let it float around my brain undisturbed, its memory popping up every so often. Sorry, Brad–you should know by now it’s tough to compete with Clint.
- Clint Eastwood (mrmovietimes.com)