On Sunday night, I went to see "Gran Torino," directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, who is also the star of the film and is probably chief bottle washer, which I could have confirmed if only I had stayed for the credits.
It must be a hard thing to direct yourself - "Put more emotion to into it, you lazy person, me" - but Clint does an excellent job. He succeeds in the impossible - making a racist character seem human and sympathetic as he mellows over the course of the story.
The character he plays is an old, bitter, retired guy carrying the emotional baggage of war. He is a Korean veteran and ex-auto worker whose wife has recently died. He lives in a midwest neighborhood where lower middle class people like himself have largely fled but he hangs stubbornly on. Gangs roam the streets and his next-door neighbors are Hmong refugees, whom he instinctively dislikes.
From her porch, an old mamma-san character yells abuse in Hmong at him just as he yells at her in English. They don't understand a word of each other's language but they understand each other perfectly well.
It's a terrific film and I highly recommend it, although the racist language will offend some. Still, it is in service of some profound themes having to do with aging, manhood, the bitterness of war, loneliness and cultural misunderstanding. (By the way, the "Gran Torino" of the title is a reference to the man's beloved old car, which is central to the plot).
I have an anecdote of my own about war and cultural misunderstanding, which I got to thinking about when I got home.
In 1970, I was stationed in Saigon with the Australian Army. One night, I went out with a mate named Mike. We had too much to drink - as was customary at that time, your honor - and we took a common cyclo-taxi back to our billet in Cholon, the Chinese section of the city. For the price of a few piastres, we crammed in with perhaps six other Vietnamese.
Mike was never a good advertisement for drunks and started to abuse the Vietnamese in general and the poor guy opposite him in particular. While I was no enlightened soul, just another clueless soldier in somebody else's country, his racist abuse did bother me a bit - then, as now, I was against stupidity in all its forms.
So I said: "Mike, don't abuse this poor gentleman. He is not some ignorant bloke. He went to Oxford University."
This was meant as a joke, something to distract Mike and lighten the situation, and my reference to Oxford was merely my idea of an excellent school.
But no sooner did I mention Oxford, than a look of astonishment came over that poker-faced Vietnamese man.
"How did you know?" the man said softly but in perfect English.