Hospitality, Community and Survival in Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood has done it again. Like fine wine, over time he seems to become more compelling with films like Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, and lately, Gran Torino. It is amazing he has been doing movies since the 1950’s and yet, he still remains provocative and interesting, particularly in the social issues he engages in his newest movie, the Gran Torino. In this film, Eastwood appears as Walt Kowalski — a gruff, bitter Korean War veteran who is alienated from his family. He’s also recently widowed. Being clergy, my interest always piques a bit more when there is a clergy character in a film.

In Gran Torino, Christopher Carley plays Father Janovich, a fresh-out-of-seminary, bright-eyed local Catholic priest … who comes off somewhat too eager and full of answers in the beginning. I felt myself bristle a little at his over-confidence, but then I remembered that I was probably annoyingly idealistic in the very beginning, too. It was familiar. I remember the pat theological answers I relied on seemed hollow without life experience. There is a sense of that in Father Janovich’s character, too. At the same time, in part, I think it is his youth and energy that seems to eventually soften Walt’s deep-seated anger. So, what I did end up appreciating the most about his character was his persistence. He frequently visits Walt, fulfilling the last wishes of Walt’s dying wife, and slowly burgeons into a much fuller clergy character, in terms of being more teachable and open to the education offered by life and death, rather than relying on the lessons learned in seminary classrooms. It is a good reminder to me to remember the simple clergy “techniques” of presence and teachability.

But, the bulk of the plotline is centered on his interaction with his Hmong neighbors. On a dare by his cousin for initiation into a gang, Thao, the son of this neighboring family, tries to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Thao is caught by Walt at gunpoint, but he runs out the door. When the gang comes back over to Thao’s house the next day and pressures him to do it again, it erupts into violence that spills over into Walt’s yard, but Walt pulls out another gun and the gang retreats. Thao admits he is the one who tried to steal the Gran Torino, and the family showers Walt with gifts because of his help, although he rejects them and demands to be left alone. Eventually he begrudgingly falls into a friendship with them so that Walt has Thao do odd jobs around the house. He saves Thao’s sister, Sue, from an escalating confrontation, and he joins the family for a traditional Hmong barbeque. Walt’s role and involvement in the family becomes more entrenched as he helps Thao find a job, befriends Sue, and makes a final sacrifice to protect the family from future gang violence.

Being an Asian American and an immigrant myself [though most would consider my being second generation since I immigrated here with my parents when I was a year old], I was completely disarmed by the racial slurs that seemed to pour continuously out of Walt’s mouth, but I eventually began to guffaw at each new one, maybe more out of shock that he would be so upfront it, and maybe because of sadness at how hurt and angry he was about his life situations. Still, it did not taint my view of the film or the family; my heart was most moved by their struggles. I appreciated the endeavor to highlight this little-known Asian community within the harsh walls of rust city Detroit rather than the typical, token Chinese/Korean/Japanese martial-arts-sword-fighting-ninja cultures. I loved seeing the unique pieces of this culture – the tradition of upholding ancestors, the reverence for family and community, and the abundance of unique foods. Hmong women seem especially strong and central to family life, and this is evident in Sue’s character, who is an intriguing and authentic mix of Asian and American exemplifying that beautiful, but difficult tension in living both cultures. She is supportive of the family, interprets when needed in most situations, watches over her younger brother Thao, but then is also sassy, sticks up for herself when she is harassed by a group of young men, and does not pull any punches with Walt. One of the best scenes is Sue walking into the kitchen during the family barbeque and Walt is at the table with many of the Hmong women around him as they force heaping plate after plate on him full of Hmong delicacies. He looks like he is truly enjoying the attention, and she does not fail to point it out. Even someone like Walt could not deny the Hmong women’s persuasive hospitality.

This is a story is about hospitality and community. It is also about survival in all its various levels. Walt trying to survive his wife’s death and what seems like years of repressing memories of his time in various wars; Thao trying to survive in the midst of pressures from the Hmong gang and violence; Sue trying to survive in the harsh wilderness of Detroit’s dilapidated outskirts as a bright flower who eventually gets cut down, but seems to be on the way to recovery in the end. There’s even Father Janovich trying to survive, in a sense, as a clergy person…as he tries to make his vision of God’s grace relevant and accessible. What is most powerful is the sacrifice Walt makes in the end to ensure Thao and Sue’s survival in that world; it is awful and redemptive at the same time. This is a movie I would highly recommend because of the reminder that we constantly need someone to dismantle our cushy world-views, and how much we need relationships and community to simply make it in this crazy world.

Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort is currently serving as associate pastor for Youth and Christian Education at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Easton, Pa. She graduated with her Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and recently earned her Master of Theology in Religion and Society from there in spring 2008. Mihee can be found in the local coffee shop, the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, on walks with her husband Andy and Ellis the dog, and at her blog.

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