Saturday, May 16, 2009



By Kevin Stoda, Germany

German cinema is raving about the somewhat forgotten (in the USA-only) 2008 film GRAN TORINO from Clint Eastwood.

The world is craving films about more average and genuine American lives—and believe it or not, the dysfunctional families in a former-big-gas-guzzling-car manufacturing boomtown in Michigan offer such an insight of (view of) America!

This thirst for good and more genuine stories, i.e. which reflect the width and breadth of the American experience, especially in our economic-shell-shocked age, is very strong around the globe.

Particularly, the racist wars with Muslims and Arabs have spawned this interest in the American saga of multicultural and multi-generational integration.

I went to the early showing of the film, GRAN TORINO, last night at Castle Biebrich. [Yes, this movie theater is really a nice castle on the Rhine River where classic films are studied on a regular basis.

This particular 6:30pm showing was the premier of the English language version (with German subtitles) of GRAN TORINO in Germany.

The movie room in the third floor of the giant castle was filled when I went in. The German crowd awaiting at 9:00 the second showing of GRAND TORINO was absolutely overflowing the hallway. (I’m sure some folks had to be turned away.)

As a slow rain fell, I reflected on what I had just seen in the Castle Biebrich in Germany about life in Michigan-America 2008-2009 through the lens of Clint Eastwood (and cohorts) as the water bounced off my umbrella and I wandered in the evening light of the castle gardens.


According to internet blurbs, the plot of the film GRAN TORINO goes as follows.

“The story follows Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran, and examines his attitude to his neighbors, [including] a Hmong family. After Kowalski’s young neighbor, Thao tries to steal his Gran Torino and a Hmong gang attacks Thao for failing, Kowalalski reluctantly forms a relationship with the family.”

Such a blurb doesn’t tell you that the film is also an educational film on how to teach new settlers in America to try an integrate in a positive way.

Nor do most Americans know that the 2008 film has been the highest grossing Clint Eastwood film of all time worldwide—beating out the Academy Award winning MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

The end of this film, GRAN TORINO, finds a dead protagonist, played by Clint Eastwood, singing a tune as the young Hmong-American hero, Thao, begins (1) to drive the Gran Torino along Lake Michigan and (2) to live out the American dream that the racist old man has opened him up to him--through the old racist’s mentoring in the realm of how to live in and make it in macho-old-run-down Michigan, especially in economically troubled times.

That is, in an age when gangs offer more hope to young Hmongs and minority males than most of the rest of their slice of the American dream-pi actually appears to do so.


The racist old foul-mouthed man whom Eastwood plays had not even known that Hmongs were among the Montagnards or hill tribes in Vietnam, Laos and China who had fought against the Viet Cong on behalf of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, the story of the Hmongs in USA history remains mostly unknown in MOST OF America and elsewhere, TOO.
Jeffrey Lindsay notes, “The Hmong [in Southeast Asia] apparently were told that they could bravely fight for the U.S. because the United States would always be there to protect them should local communists turn on the Hmong. It was a relationship of trust, but Hmong trust in the US would be sadly misplaced.”
Lindsay continues, “In 1963 the Kennedy Administration had the CIA increase the secret Hmong army in Laos to 20,000 soldiers. Significant battles occurred as the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao occupied major areas in northern Laos in 1964. Meanwhile, the US began a secret air war in Laos. By 1968, US pilots would be doing 300 dangerous sorties a day to battle many thousands of Communist troops. Hmong soldiers rescued many American pilots who were shot down. Sometimes dozens of Hmong would die in order to rescue one American pilot. Over 100 Hmong pilots were recruited and trained by the US, and they ran mission after mission until they were all killed. Hmong courage seemed to know no bounds in the fight for freedom. But sadly, much of the fighting seems to have been in vain.”
Finally, “[a]fter taking over Laos in 1975, the Pathet Lao Communists stated that they would wipe out the Hmong. A Vietnamese broadcast apparently called for genocide against them. From 1976 to 1979, there were credible reports of chemical warfare used against Hmong villages. The world tried to ignore these reports, and some influential voices in the United States tried to discredit the evidence, claiming that the "yellow rain" that had been used to kill Hmong people was just natural bee feces, not a chemical toxin. By the time overwhelming evidence had been gathered to shatter the "bee feces" theory, the media no longer seemed interested in exploring charges of genocide by Communist forces.”

I, myself, learned only whom Hmongs were when I went to teach in urban Kansas City, Kansas in the mid-1980s. I came to know through my educational training at that time that most of the Hmong males and youth were not integrating well.
Because the Hmong had never had even had their own written language at the end of the Vietnam War (1975), integrating the hill tribe Hmongs into the greater American saga was, in some ways, like trying to reintegrate stone-age culture into a modern educational setting.

It was unfair situation for most of the youth (who had depended historically on their ancestors and ancestor’s learning to guide them), and the U.S. as a whole certainly has done a bad job of educating and integrating the Hmong population into American society over the last 4 decades.

Left to sink or swim, Hmong could only fall back onto family support and tribal traditions (leading to a preference for gangs among many male youth)—or simply sink.
According to Lindsay., “The United States, recognizing the sacrifice made by Hmong soldiers to fight for the U.S., began accepting Hmong refugees into the United States in December of 1975. By 1990, about 100,000 refugees had entered the United States. Today approximately 250,000 Hmong are in the U.S., and a similar number still live in Laos. Over 5 million Hmong people are in Southern China, also under Communist rule.”

So, in the 2008 film, set in a run-down part of Michigan, it is no surprise that Hmong characters (and other such Southeast Asian immigrants) have not done as well as other Asian Americans in integrating or succeeding in American society.
The film, GRAN TORINO, introduces a global audience to the food habits, social problems, and Hmong culture for the first time.

As the world has spent nearly 300 million dollars viewing the film over the last 6 months, I would say the world is interested in the integration story of America.


In the film, GRAN TORINO, Walt Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who still hates himself for some of the horrors he inflicted on others in an Asian war over five decades earlier. This film is ever-in-the-present though. In this way, Kowalski never reveals a flash-back of those scenes that haunt him and make him unable to deal with death—whether it is his own death or the death of his wife.
Kowalski does share one poignant line, though.

Kowalski basically tells a priest, “It is not those horrible things or killings you did [in war] because you were ordered to which haunt [you], it is those horrible things you have done without being told to do them.”
This is a poignant thought, eh?

Too often we (as peace makers) try to awaken guilt for crimes committed by soldiers—regardless as to whether these soldiers are from fascist lands, communist-run countries, or very mentally-confused Islamic tribes.

The killing guilt is, though, the kind of guilt we have when we know that no demagogue, officer or fascist ordered us to commit them.
This guilt might even include the sense of guilt in building weapons (by our own firms) for some of us if that is the case.

Such a sense of guilt can not be corrected in any straight-forward way because there are so many internal and psychological cover-ups of our own guilt that none of our friends or family may ever scratch the surface or help us transcend the sense of guilt for non-acting to stop violence before it happened(s).
This means are unwillingness to go to jail to stop war.
This means that our willingness to take a chance and help-the-other will mean us having to take a bullet for the other.
The film GRAN TORINO’s storyline and critical self-reflection handles this theme ‘of taking a bullet” to some great degree and shows why Clint Eastwood’s films are getting better as he ages--and is no longer allowing the rest of the world dictate his narration.

In short, the ugly-nasty-mouthed-hero Kowalski (also from a family of polish immigrants a century earlier) handles the concept of suicide attack better than many characters in most other films of any similar genre.

Finally, as the USA military complex is still at war and soldiers will continue to be sent in to do suicide raids and attacks, we should all ponder the reality of it all and ask whether we follow orders or act on (and through) our own conviction, too.
I hope some Arab and Muslim viewers understand what the underlying message is and see that unnecessarily wounding the innocent in war is a loser, too. That is certainly an indirect but important message from the film.

After a long wait at a rainy bus stop not far from the gardens of Biebrich Castle last night, I was able to catch a ride back to my home near the train station.
It was still pouring down as I rushed up the street to my flat in Oranien Street. (The Oranien family had built Biebrich Castle orgiginally.)

Suddenly a thirty-year-old black man stopped me, talked to me, and begged for money. He offered me his watch and coat in return for twenty or thirty Euros.
As the rain poured down, the man shared, “I have been all over town today but I don’t speak much German. I havr just been to the Red Cross at the military base, where he had used to be employed as contractor.”

The man explained that he had been laid-off when there was a cut-back in work several months back. He had been promised a few more jobs, but each time, different contractors with more seniority had gotten the work.

In other words, for several months, the man had been out of work.
This man was from Michigan—yep, just like the characters in the film I had just watched in Biebrich Castle. (You know, the film GRAN TORINO about isolated fringe types in the American culture 2008-2009.)

This American shared that he had been kicked out of his apartment that very morning and his suitcases were hidden under bushes in a town west of Biebrich—called Shierstein.

He couldn’t speak much German, he said, but he needed money and help to make it to Frankfurt where the U.S. Consulate had a place to stay for orphaned contractors like himself.

I told the young man that the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt is closed till Monday.
Nonetheless, this man assured me that he had contacted the USA Consulate and their was a place where he could go and they could help him to stay a bit until a plane ticket could be found to send him back to Michigan, i.e. with the Consulate’s assistance.
I wondered aloud, “Do I have the word SUCKER planted on my forehead?”

I pondered whether to invite the guy back to my house.

I also began to look at the watch the man had offered me in lieu of some cash.
The man said he planned to head with his stuff to Frankfurt as soon as he had enough money to get a taxi to take his belongings from the town of Shierstein-- i.e. not far from Biebrich,--and back to the main Wiesbaden train station.
I had only about 30 Euros--and a bit of change--in my pocket.

As the rain poured down, the man said he planned to simply walk back to Shierstein, get himself something to eat, take a taxi to the train station, and then go on a train into Frankfurt.

I thought and calculated, “It is 10 o’clock on a Friday night in Germany. All that would cost about 30 or 40 Euros.”

Still worrying about being played for a sucker, I agreed to take the man’s watch and give him 30 Euros. (NOTE: I have needed a watch for some time but have usually gotten by for a half a year with a cell-phone clock.)

I turned away after praying for the guy.

After about 50 meters, I looked at the black man from Michigan as he trudged up the Biebricher Road.

That Michigan man did not stop walking and take a bus as I had anticipated him doing if he was just tricking me out of my money.

Instead, he passed the bus stop.

Then, in the rain, the young man continued his walk up the road as though he was on a great mission, which would take him on a circuitous but safe route in a few hours to Shierstein.

“Hopefully, [if that is where he is meant to be], the broke man would be on a plane back to Michigan in a few days, “ I thought.
Who knows?

At least I’ve got a Nike Watch.


WE ALL have a chance in our lives to take a chance on others.
I don’t mean that other readers should be reckless enough to chance throwing money away at or on beggars from foreign lands as I possibly did last night
On the other hand, I believe, “At least taking a thirty-euro chance on this apparently homeless thirty-year-old Michiganite is better than throwing my money away in a casino. There, in the casino, my chance to help someone is none once the money is gone.”*

The main character in GRAN TORINO had rolled the dice, too,--i.e. on a young man who had try to steal his own car from him.

What chance are you going to take on humanity today?

What kind of mentoring can you offer young people today?

What kind of hopeful and helpful life do you want to live out?

These are other things that the world wants to know from/about America in 2009.

Such films are what life is full of….. aren’t they, America?
*Casino is the current Germany metaphor for the incompetent/misleading form of capitalism that dominated in the world over the past two decades or more. Read this article for more clarification.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home