"Gran Torino" co-star continues to be the worst thing about the movie
The woefully untalented co-star of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino has resurfaced to do further damage to the popular 2008 drama.
Gran Torino “mainstreamed anti-Asian racism,” says actor Bee Vang, adding further that he is “haunted” by the “mirth” that the film’s “copious anti-Asian slurs” elicited from white audiences.
One wonders whether Eastwood is similarly “haunted” by Vang’s appearance in the film, as the young actor’s flat and stilted performance nearly ruins the entire production. Indeed, if Gran Torino suffers from anything, it’s a criminally weak supporting cast, Vang being the worst offender. That he now condemns the movie he nearly tanked with his direct-to-video-grade acting only adds insult to injury. But I digress.
“It was a historic cinematic moment for Hmong people around the world,” Vang writes in an opinion article for NBC News.
He continues, segueing into a broader discussion about violence directed at Asian Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic, “At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie’s slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply ‘harmless jokes.’ I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences. And it was always white people who would say, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ Today, I shudder at the thought of what that meant. More than a decade later, the anti-Asian racism that was once disguised as good-natured humor has been revealed for what it is, thanks to Covid-19.”
Vang's first problem is faulting Gran Torino for how certain moviegoers allegedly responded. One can accuse Eastwood of failing to tell his story properly, but saying he "mainstreamed anti-Asian racism" because some people supposedly laughed at the film’s racial slurs is like saying Brian De Palma "mainstreamed substance abuse" because audiences took a shine to Tony Montana. A storyteller is only so responsible for how his work is received, especially if the response is misaligned with his intent.
That said, complaining about racial slurs in Gran Torino is a bit like complaining about racial slurs in In the Heat of the Night. The prejudice is the point!
Conflict is what makes for a compelling and challenging story about bias, race, and generational and cultural differences!
Eastwood stars in Gran Torino as Walt Kowalski, an embittered, curmudgeonly widower and Korea War veteran who spews racial slurs such as “gook,” “zipperhead,” “dago,” and “spook” with abandon. Walt is a miserable, prejudiced old man who is unhappy with the world and everything around him, especially the fact that his beloved Michigan neighborhood has become home to displaced Hmong immigrants.
When first we meet Walt, he seems a man irredeemably damaged, his personal loss and jilted worldview discouraging him from forming meaningful relationships. He clings to the past. On the rare occasion that he takes stock of the present, he is both befuddled and disgusted by what he finds.
Walt is mean. Walt is estranged from his own family. Walt is also a racist.
However, thanks to the tireless efforts of Vang’s character, a meek but good-hearted Hmong teenager named Thao, Walt opens up eventually to his immigrant neighbors, becoming vulnerable, fatherly, and even tender. Walt comes to love his neighbors so much so that, by the film’s third act, he is willing to die for them, even despite his initial biases. The Hmong likewise benefit from their relationship with Walt, who assists them in ways both big and small, including becoming a mentor to the fatherless Thao.
In terms of basic storytelling, Walt’s racism is meant to contrast with his eventual character arc. The slurs are not meant for our enjoyment. They are not played for laughs. They are not played for our excitement. Rather, they are meant to show that Walt is a hardened and angry individual, the literal and metaphorical scars of war and a life of hard work still fresh. He cannot fathom warmth, let alone treat anyone with such. Yet, by the final act, Walt goes from disparaging his neighbors out of hand with mean-spirited, racist insults to quite literally taking a bullet for them. The racism is the conflict; Walt’s sacrificial act of love is the resolution.
By the film’s conclusion, Walt is still gruff. He is still angry. He is still stubborn. He is, after all, an old man with bad habits. By the end of the movie, Walt still addresses his Hmong neighbors with inappropriate nicknames (“Yum-Yum” being a frequent one). But, as the audience witnesses during his few interactions with his few white friends, this is Walt’s awkward and uncomfortable way of showing affection. It's not just "good-natured humor," as Vang so wrongly puts it. The playful but offensive epithets represent an attempt at friendliness, and even vulnerability, by a man who is normally anything but, especially when it comes to minorities. The insults are also a subtle reminder that Walt is still a man out of time; that he is far removed from modern concepts of loving human interactions and acceptable behavior. Further, it’s important to remember that even as he keeps at it with the inappropriate nicknames for his Hmong neighbors, he does so from the comfort of their home, not from the isolation of his front porch.
Gran Torino is about a broken man who, thanks to the kindness of his neighbors, attempts to become whole. To see Walt’s journey from hate to love of neighbor is to see a man reborn. He grows in a very real way, from isolated racist to father figure, forming a genuine, human bond with the Hmong community, a bond that he does not have with even his own adult children.
This is all apparently lost on Vang.
“[The film] may have elided the crisis in Asia that birthed our diaspora and many others across the Pacific,” he writes, referring later to U.S. military engagements “across Asia” as the “racist military ambitions of armed white supremacy.”
“But more concerning was the way the film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation. The laughter weaponized against us has beaten us into silent submission,” Vang adds.
“To this day, I am still haunted by the mirth of white audiences, the uproarious laughter when Eastwood’s curmudgeonly racist character, Walt Kowalski, growled a slur. ‘Gook.’ ‘Slope head.’ ‘Eggroll.’ It’s a ‘harmless joke,’ right? Until it’s not just a joke, but rather one more excuse for ignoring white supremacy and racism,” his essay concludes. “For Asian Americans, this is the time to demand recognition, not to recoil into a cocoon of model-minority pusillanimity. Showing ‘our American-ness’ was never enough. This is a deceit of multiculturalism.”
This criticism not only ignores the patience and heroism of Thao, whose kindness and perseverance earn him the trust and respect of a miserable, mean neighbor, but it also misses the point of Walt’s racism and, consequently, his redemptive arc.
That certain audiences may have enjoyed the racial slurs is not on Gran Torino. That’s on the individual members of the audience.
Likewise, that Vang appears to have missed the point of Walt’s ugly and regressive language is not on Gran Torino. It’s on Vang.