New movie: Eastwood is back

2009-03-27 00:00

A GREAT script helped lure veteran actor Clint Eastwood back in front of the cameras for Gran Torino.

“I hadn’t planned on doing much more acting, really,” Eastwood, who was last in front of the camera in the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, said. “But this film had a role that was my age, and the character seemed like it was tailored for me, even though it wasn’t. And I liked the script. It has twists and turns, and also some good laughs.”

The film — which opens at CineCentre today — was praised by critics, with the New York Times describing it as “a sleek, muscle car of a movie made in the USA, in that industrial graveyard called Detroit”. But the critical praise did not translate into awards — the film failed to get even one Oscar nomination.

The lack of awards has not, however, dented Eastwood’s enthusiasm for the project which marks the first time the Hmong community — an ethnic tribe of 18 clans spread among the hills of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and other parts of Asia — has been portrayed in a major Hollywood film.

“A lot of people don’t understand the role the Hmong people played in the Vietnam War,” Paula Yang, a Hmong adviser the filmmakers consulted early on, said. “How we came to the United States, and how many of our soldiers and civilians were lost during the war, remains a secret. The elders don’t talk about it. They’re so humble and there are so many sad stories.”

Gran Torino, which was scripted by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk, tells the story of Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood), a man who has spent 50 years working at the Ford factory, who is haunted by his experiences in the Korean War, and is estranged from his grown-up children and grandchildren.

One of his only pleasures in life is shining up his Ford Gran Torino, built in 1972, and it’s this car which leads him to meet his 16-year-old neighbour, Thao, who tries to steal it as part of a gang initiation.

The heist is, however, short-lived — Walt surprises Thao midway through it, scaring the teen off without seeing his face, and later comes to his rescue when the gang comes to the family home.

Hailed a hero by the community, Walt slowly gets drawn into the lives of his Hmong neighbours by Thao’s spirited older sister Sue, and as he gets to know them, he begins to reflect on his experiences in the war.

“Initially, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with these people,” Eastwood says of the character. “He changes when he realises they are intelligent and they’re very respectful of others, and I think he admires that.”

Eastwood, who also directed the film, wanted to portray the Hmong as authentically as possible, but finding actors proved tricky. Casting director Ellen Chenoweth had to use flyers and word of mouth to encourage members of the Hmong community to audition.

One of those who did was 16-year-old Bee Vang, who plays the central role of Thao. He said he was initially intimidated about working with Eastwood, adding: “Growing up, I’d seen him in Westerns and other films, like Dirty Harry, but I never imagined that I’d ever even meet this guy, and then there he was.

“Mr Eastwood likes things to be as natural as they can be. It has to be real. I like that style. I loved every minute working with him and the rest of the crew. I will never forget this.”

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