Gran Torino: Hmong Stir-Fry

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley
(R, 116 min.)

"There is no need to sharpen a thorn." Hmong Proverb

Dirty Harry in retirement. Or coming out of it to finish off a few gangbanger thugs. At least, that’s what the trailers would have you believe. But this 2008 Clint Eastwood venture has a lot more depth and philosophical heft than you might expect. 

In fact, Walter Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is more or less an existential hero. A kind of curmudgeonly Camus cut off from nature, his fellow men, his God, and his true self. Except instead of sitting around a Paris café chatting away about man’s isolation in an uncaring world, Walt lives it, sitting on his concrete stoop, his cooler full of beer on his right, his faithful and aging Labrador, Daisy, on his left. 

The only nature he knows is his postage stamp of a yard, which he keeps at bay with his push lawnmower, a kind of military patrol against any rebel blade poking up its head. He guards his turf and its small treasures with military zeal. Walt keeps a small arsenal in the living room chest, and a drawer full of faded photos obscurring a medal of honor packed away in the garage. There also is a lifetime’s collection of super manly tools, as well as his greatest treasure of all, a 1972 Gran Torino. It sports a steering wheel he put on himself, back in the days when he worked the assembly line at Ford.

So perhaps it is his son’s foreign car rather than his granddaughter’s rudeness, such as sporting her exposed pierced navel at grandma’s funeral, which really puts him off the family. Of course, it doesn’t help when son Mitch (Brian Haley) and his wife show up for Walt’s birthday with a beautifully iced cake, and instead of a gaudy tie or argyle socks, open up some equally offensive retirement community brochures. 

Walt’s not too fond of his new neighbors either, a Hmong family from southeast Asia whom he quickly labels “swamp rats,” one of the milder ethnic slurs among a slew of them in Kowalski’s burgeoning repertoire. And his time in Korea seems to have amplified his Asian pejoratives.

All of which makes it extremely uncomfortable to have their undying gratitude when he faces off some Hmong thugs trying to make off with their youngest, Tao (Bee Vang). He becomes the neighborhood hero, his porch stacked up with flowers and Hmong dishes almost to Princess Di proportions. It is only when his cooler of beer runs out that he takes Tao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) up on her invitation to join the family for a dinner, with plenty of beer included. 

Working on him from the God angle is Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), a baby-faced redhead of a priest who has promised Walt’s recently deceased wife to save his soul, or at least to get him to go to confession. Walt is not buying any of it from the “27-year old virgin,” and he “confesses” that he has no urge to go to confession, smiling at his own attempt at humor. But the “padre,” as Walt insists on calling him, is persistent, and he keeps after the old man, absorbing his insults with priestly calm on his regular visits. There is an even-handedness to their exchanges, adversarial as they are, that defies the regular anti-religious Hollywood rubric.

Which brings us to Walt’s true self, something he safely walls off with his gruff demeanor. He tosses racial epithets like so many hand grenades to keep away any intruders who might try to wheedle their way into his heart. But most of all, he keeps his inner anguish buried down deep, where it lurks like a land mine waiting to explode.

Of course it is one of the swamp rats who breaks though the enemy lines. Tao, caught trying to steal the Gran Torino, is forced by his family to work off his transgression, and Walt slowly thaws to the young boy in a way he never did to his own son. His tutelage is definitely Old School; the advice on dating and how to “man up” make for some of the better comedic moments.

In spite of its peppering of humor, though, Gran Torino is anything but a comedy. It is a tribute to a past vision of manhood, certainly flawed by our politically correct standards, but beneath its gritty skin there lives a rare courage that makes its passing somehow profoundly sad.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Walt Kowalski lives on cigarettes, beer, and beef jerky. No wonder it doesn’t take that much effort for his neighbor Sue to persuade him to come over for an authentic Hmong dinner. That, and the promise of free beer.

Soon he is at in the lair of the “swamp rats,” and Walt can’t seem to get enough of their food, He especially loves the dumplings. Since we’ve already featured these “pot stickers,” I have chosen another Hmong recipe, a stir-fry featuring pork and a wonderful Asian vegetable called bok choy. The authentic recipe calls for pork belly, but I’m sure you could substitute another pork product, such as sliced tenderloin, or even chicken, if you prefer.

(The Hmong people are an ethnic group from the mountains of southeast Asia, living not only in southern China, but also in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar-Burma. As refugees from the Vietnam War, many have relocated in the United States, some of which live in Detroit, Michigan, which is the setting for Gran Torino.)

Hmong Stir-Fry

Stir-Fried Baby Bok Choy with Pork 

Makes 6 servings 

Hmong people are especially fond of pork belly because it has wonderful textures and flavors. When cooked, the skin is chewy, the fat is soft and the lean meat is very tasty. Pork belly is usually sold in a slab. It is available at some mainstream supermarkets and most Asian grocery stores. This dish tastes best when it is made with an Asian-style bouillon cube. However, beware - it includes MSG as well as salt. If you prefer to avoid MSG, use a regular bouillon cube.

Ingredients 

  • 1/2 pound pork belly
  • 1 bunch of baby bok choy (about 10 small heads)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube (Asian-style, or regular)

Preparation 

Cut the pork belly slab into 1 by 1/8-inch pieces and set aside. Carefully wash the bok choy, pulling each leaf off of the head. Cut each leaf in two, from tip to stem. Drain on paper towels. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the pork, salt and the bouillon cube. Stir-fry about 10 minutes. Add the bok choy and stir-fry about 5 more minutes. The dish is done when the meat is cooked, the bok choy leaves are limp, the stems are still a little crispy and a glossy glaze covers it all. Serve hot accompanied by fluffy jasmine rice. 

Recipe Source: Hmongcooking.com