the good, the bad and the ugly: gran torino

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino opened in select theaters on Friday. Having now seen the film, I have a few thoughts. There are a lot of little things to admire about the movie (Hmong Americans in the spotlight!), and a handful of big things that really bothered me (white man saves the neighborhood!). Still, overall, I have to admit that I walked out of the theater feeling like I'd seen a pretty significant film.

The movie tells the story of Walt Kowalski, a widowed Korean War vet who just wants to be left alone. When he catches Thao, the Hmong teenager next door, trying to steal his prized possession—a 1973 mint condition Gran Torino—he reluctantly gets drawn into the life of Thao, his sister Sue, and their family, eventually taking steps to protect them from the growing threat of neighborhood gangs. At 78 years old, Clint Eastwood still convincingly looks like he could kick a teenage gangbanger's ass, and he does.

Walt Kowalski is what Dirty Harry would look like if he'd grown old and gone suburban—he's aging, cranky, and hates everybody. The world around him has changed, and his old-world, racist self refused to change with it. This is no exaggeration—during the course of the movie, Walt unabashedly utters every single imaginable slur for Asians. Because he's a bitter old racist white guy, and that's what bitter old racist white guys do.

But as his friendship with Thao and Sue grows, Walt eventually comes to an understanding. Yes, the classic tale of White Man Learns from People of Color. We've seen it before. In many ways, the movie plays a bit like Hmong America 101. For a lot of average moviegoers, I imagine this will probably be their first exposure to the Hmong people, their culture and their story in America. This is both a good and bad thing.

When has Hollywood ever even attempted to tell this specific ethnic group's story? I recall an episode of Grey's Anatomy, but outside of that, and news coverage of trouble with Hmong hunters, they've been virtually invisible. To the story's credit, Thao and Sue seem like real, multidimensional characters, and their family and community are drawn with a degree of compassion. The film touches upon issues of their history and struggles as a recent immigrant group. It's a little clunky, but Eastwood and Co. get points for at least trying.

Then again, there's the gang. The mean Hmong gang who terrorize and prey on their own people. Thao's cousin Spider runs with a bunch of thugs playing gangsta who are hell bent on recruiting on Thao into the gang. Their posturing starts from stupid and increasingly escalates into something awful. Sure, every community has its unique share of screw-ups. It's just disheartening to see the Hmong depicted, in a way, as people who need saving from themselves. And that's where Clint Eastwood steps in.

In the end, this isn't a movie about the Hmong American community. It's about Kowalski's journey of understanding and redemption. And I've got to admit, it's pretty affecting. Big props to first-time actors Bee Vang and Ahney Her, who play Thao and Sue. They do a great job, and I hope we see more of them. The same goes for the rest of the Hmong cast—also mostly newcomers. But this isn't the great, definitive Hmong American movie you've been waiting for. That movie has yet to be made. And something tells me Hollywood doesn't have plans to make it anytime soon. Gran Torino will have to do for now.

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