By Sophia Kim
I didn’t intend on watching it. Especially after I heard and read about it as being critically acclaimed. It just made me a little suspicious to hear that. And I don’t think any of my progressive Asian American friends had seen it. But we were down in rural Pennsylvania, visiting family friends, and one of them wanted to see it (it = Gran Torino). So we went—us, the only people of color in the whole theater, surrounded by white folks of different ages (yes, even a young boy, probably about 7 or 8, sitting right next to us. I guess the parents didn’t mind that he would be watching a rated R movie).
In a nutshell, Gran Torino is about Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, a Korean War veteran, living in a small town in Michigan. The neighborhood where he lives is slowly being taken over by Hmong and other immigrants, and he’s not happy about it. He’s a racist, hardened, bitter old man who just lost his loving wife, which makes him even more closed off.
The main conflict in the story is between his next-door neighbors, a wholesome Hmong family, and a gang of Hmong young men. The gang is trying to pressure the boy from the Hmong family into their brotherhood, but he doesn’t want to join them. Meanwhile, Walt slowly gets sucked into the struggle as he has several run-ins with different members of the family. Slowly, his icy exterior starts to melt, with the help of feisty Sue, the daughter of the Hmong family who serves as bridge between Walt and her family.
So many problems with this film, yet where to begin?
ONE: the acting was terrible. Sorry to say it, especially after knowing how they cast for the film. Eastwood’s team made an effort to cast Hmong people from the large community in Minnesota. So he gets one point for effort. However, it’s not enough to just pick “authentic” characters if they can’t really act. Throughout the film, I was struck by the poor dialogue and the poor acting. Not only were the Hmong characters caricatures, but even characters such as Walt’s son and daughter-in-law, and other peripherals were also exaggerated. No one was real. It seemed like they were trying to teach a lesson about diversity and tolerance, and that lesson came before the quality of the acting. I’m no film critic, but it does bother me when I’m watching a film and I can feel that the characters are just that, characters, and not “real life” people, especially when it’s supposed to be a real-life kind of movie.
TWO: so besides the acting, there was the usual white savior formula that always seems to happen when a film is about people of color. Walt helped save the “poor” Hmong family when the Hmong gang attacked the home and raped the sister. The poor family couldn’t protect themselves without his help. And then, he gave himself up at the end: the sacrificial lamb needed to provide evidence that the gang was “bad” and then could finally be arrested.
THREE: despite being another good effort on Eastwood’s part to shine a light on the Hmong community and culture, which has never been done before in mainstream Hollywood, it did become another detoxification of this “strange” culture with the “weird” customs, superstitions, and language. I could feel the efforts being made by Eastwood the director to show respect and reverence for this culture, but in so doing, he went overboard and made it into a PBS children’s special.
FOUR: and again, despite Eastwood’s efforts to present, it seems, a more rounded view of Hmong Americans (and hence, Asian Americans), he was only able to further reinforce the two extreme stereotypes - model minority immigrants opposed to the gangbanging young men. There was no complexity to the characters—it was a good versus evil film where you were inevitably rooting for the good guys with no sympathy or deeper understanding of the evil.
Those were the main problems, which made it a “don’t-see-it” movie in the eyes of this progressive, socially conscious Asian American. On the other hand, it made me wonder if it is a necessary step in the forward motion of positive and more accurate portrayal of Asian Americans in the film mainstream. After all, this WASN’T an independent film scrounging for resources. It WASN’T a movie that was knocking at the back door of Hollywood to be let in and recognized. It was an Eastwood film. The man is no film-world slouch—he’s won five Academy Awards, two as director for best pictures (Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven). And he did make efforts, but is that what it takes for Asian Americans to get beyond the stereotypical representations?
Lots of people watched this film—by the 2nd week of February, it had grossed almost 130 million dollars (that’s #240 in the ranking of the top U.S. movies of all time, according to imdb.com). So was it better that lots of people (I’m sure most of them were not Asian American) were watching this film and seeing more than your typical accented foreign Chinatown gangster or kung fu master? Or would it further solidify and perpetuate other stereotypes of urban gangsters, model minority, and even the need to be saved by white heroes?
I am torn. But overall, I am just disappointed that it was a poor quality movie. There went my ten dollars and almost three hours of my life! I’ll leave it up to you if you want to spend the money or time to watch it. In my mind, it wasn’t worth it.