Monday, March 09, 2009

Gran Torino: Reverse Kung Fu Kid

Posted on IMDB: Quick Review of Clint Eastwood's movie
Reverse Kung Fu Kid, Neighborhood missionary with rifle, Do the Right Thing, 9 March 2009

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

People really should support this movie which has a really big heart. It's too bad that Hollywood won't support a movie where a) the main characters are unknown Asians and b) the hero is a straight racist white military veteran. The movie starts by portraying the old Korean vet as a racist who is angry starting with his own family, and goes downhill from there, and the Asian neighbors as the enemy. The meek boy is the worst example of their people. But in the end, Walt is revealed to be the hero, and the boy becomes his spiritual disciple. As with the story of the good Samaritan, the "invaders" become his true family that he loves so much he gives up his own life for them. It's no coincidence that he ends up sprawled on the lawn as if nailed to a cross.

As one who has seen many movies portray the story of (sometimes doomed) white men against a romantic backdrop of (sometimes savage) Asians such as Sand Pebbles or Clavell's Shogun, Walt on one level appears to be an unwitting white missionary who, instead of traveling to far off places, is left behind when far-off peoples transform the neighborhood. It also evokes a flip-mirror version of Spike Lee's controversial Do the Right Thing which at one level presents the imperialist Pizza parlor as the enemy and the bomb tossing radical as the hero, but on another revealed the folly of destroying local businesses to make a political point of racial assertiveness.

On another level, he is the Western blue-collar mirror image of Kung Fu Kid's sensei or Obi Wan Kenobi who skillfully insults fellow Americans of all races with a signature move of pointing his M-1 Garand rifle into the faces of punks. Meek Thao / Toad is trained in the fine art of BS, asking a girl out, and fixing things. When we see the promo shot of the Gran Torino driving by the water, it's actually the young Jedi carrying on Walt's legacy in his car, with Walt's dog by his side.

As an Asian American who has had to find his own way of assimilation, (and still can't cuss quite the way Walt can or shoot) I can empathize with people who find America as exotic and unscrutable as America finds the "orientals". The film suffers a bit from casting punks as Latinos (low rider chevy), Asians (giant winged Civic) and whites as posers, redneck (Ford pickup) or successful grown yuppies (Land Cruiser) but the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese as well as the Hmong have suffered from gangs at different times and places in history. Older sister Sue come across a bit mismatched as the interpreter when her brother looks and talks like he just got off the FOB boat. She seems to be on vacation from Asian American studies at Ann Arbor. (The girls go to college, the boys go to jail) The shaman and grumpy grandmother are marvelous even if we have no idea what they are saying. ("She says welcome to our house"???) There is just so much going on between the characters, this movie deserves to be watched and torn apart much more the flicks like Catch-22, Cuckoo's Nest or Cool Hand Luke that I watched back in the 70s. On the surface, it looks like Dirty Harry Rides Again. I'm still not impressed by the movie that made him famous (what was with those nude scenes anyways??), but there's much, much more to it than that in this latest effort. BTW, the Gran Torino was one of my favorite muscle cars of the 1970s, and if you are interested in other Asian-themed movies, you should watch Letters from Iwo Jima, it's much better than Flags of Our Fathers.

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