The Most Badass Movie Character of the Year Is a Surly Chinese Grandma
Tsai Chin delivers a powerhouse turn as a gambling grandma taking on the Chinatown triads in “Lucky Grandma,” filmmaker Sasie Sealy’s impressive debut.
A relative of neither the repulsively crass Dirty Grandpa nor the inappropriately goofy Bad Grandpa, director Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma (now available on VOD) is an alternately salty and sweet tale of a strong, silent widow who, through providence and her own bold choices, finds herself in criminal trouble. Led by an irresistibly charming performance by Tsai Chin (best known stateside for The Joy Luck Club), it’s a genre film that exudes the spirit of its elderly protagonist: modest, sharp, and full of delightfully defiant piss and vinegar.
In the wake of her husband’s passing, Grandma Wong (Chin) continues to live alone in New York City’s Chinatown, even though her son Howard (Eddie Yu) and daughter-in-law Lynn (Ali Ahn) would prefer that she relocate to their suburban home. A cigarette perpetually wedged in the corner of her mouth, Wong is a hilariously ornery matriarch whose aged countenance generally defaults to one of two expressions: annoyance or fury. Despite the fact that she moves at a slow shuffle, her steely eyes make clear that she’s not to be taken lightly (much less for granted), and at the outset of Sealy’s directorial debut (co-written by Angela Cheng), she receives some auspicious news from her trusty fortuneteller (Wai Ching Ho): “Your lucky day is coming!”
The actual date of her prosperity is October 28, and when it arrives—this after trudging through her usual day-to-day chores, and struggling to blow out the candles on her birthday cake—she responds by cleaning out her bank account and taking her life savings (all $1,757 of it) on a bus trip to a casino. There, providence smiles down upon her, at least until she finally loses at cards and decides to call it a night. As it turns out, though, her fortunes aren’t done improving. On the bus ride home, the passenger sitting beside her has a heart attack and dies, and at the moment Wong realizes this has taken place, the deceased gentleman’s bag falls from the overhead compartment and lands straight in her lap—containing, she realizes with wide-eyed astonishment, stacks upon stacks of cash.
Having apparently never seen A Simple Plan, No Country for Old Men, or any other noir-ish fable about the trouble that comes from pocketing “found” money that doesn’t belong to you, Wong views this as a sign from on-high. She promptly returns home with the loot, stashing it away in one of the many bags of rice she’d previously won at her local bank, and lighting incense at a shrine for her spouse—which, amusingly, is now also decorated with the porno mag she found in the bag of dough. The following morning, Wong does some shopping, and when a glistening chandelier catches her eye, she doesn’t hesitate to make it her own.
Back at her modest apartment, though, two Red Dragon gang members—smooth-talking Pockmark (Woody Fu) and psychotic Little Handsome (Michael Tow)—are waiting for her. They let her know she was seen sitting next to the man who died, and they suspect she has his missing bounty. Wong, naturally, feigns ignorance, but her outlandish purchase doesn’t help sell her case, and upon extricating herself from this encounter, she goes to Red Dragon’s triad rivals, the Zhongliang gang, and hires a bodyguard: gentle giant Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha).
Over the course of their ensuing odyssey together, Wong and Big Pong grow closer, she gruff and brazen, he a big softie and loyal protector. They’re a thoroughly odd couple, and Lucky Grandma alternates its time between scenes in which they quietly develop their friendship—at the salon, where Big Pong is awkward and distracting, or at home, where she invites the hungry goliath to eat with her and her grandson David (Mason Yam)—and more action-oriented shenanigans involving their Red Dragon enemies. No matter what register the film is operating in, however, Chin is a grim-faced riot. Her Wong has a scowl for just about every occasion, and they boast just enough minor variations to keep her surprising. Far from a one-note performance, Chin employs her silent frowns to convey an impressively wide range of emotions that deepen her characterization, which is steeped in loneliness, anger, bitterness and stubborn determination.
Rarely turning her camera’s gaze away from the formidable Wong, director Sealy situates her protagonist in a Chinatown brimming with inviting cultural and social details. Like last year’s The Farewell, she brings her Asian-American milieu to life in bold, distinctive strokes. That’s in keeping with her overall stewardship of the material, which is elevated by quick, concise Edgar Wright-ish mini-montages that are as self-possessed and forceful as Wong herself. The first five minutes of Lucky Grandma alone are a master class in storytelling efficiency, as Sealy establishes her main character, environment and narrative premise with a minimum of dialogue (including almost none from Wong) and a raft of succinct, jaunty sequences. She’s further aided by a bouncy, brassy, horn-heavy Andrew Orkin score that—married to Chinese pop songs—contributes to the proceedings’ humorous atmosphere.
Lucky Grandma can’t quite sustain its initial spryness; the more it mires Wong in underworld conflicts, the less it feels tethered to the real world. That’s too bad considering the authenticity of its early going, replete with arguments between Wong and her skeptical son about her reliance on a “doctor” who apparently cured her friend’s diabetes and, for her own ailments, prescribed “chrysanthemum leaves and one gold fish.” Knife fights, shootouts, chases through the streets and kidnappings eventually factor into the equation, not to mention the age-old sight of a person falling backwards during a skirmish, conking their head on the edge of a table, and dying instantly—an unexpectedly fatal turn of events that happens approximately one million times more frequently in the movies than it does in real life.
Exhibiting an assured hand throughout, Sealy stages such dynamic shenanigans with aplomb, but there’s still a diminishing-returns quality to her genre elements, simply because they’re less engaging than the more understated, routine moments with Chin herself. Even amidst such violent chaos, she’s the truly imposing star of the show, shining so brightly that everything else on display pales in comparison.