Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) has a mostly unflappable face, a look that stays the same whether she’s celebrating her birthday or inciting a Chinese gang war. Grandma has the kind of glare that says, over her eighty years, she has seen some shit. It makes sense that first-time director and co-writer Sasie Sealy put Chin at the center of this crime comedy; just her composed face – which Sealy understandably puts in closeup as often as possibly – makes any absurd situation all the more amusing.
In Sealy’s Lucky Grandma, there’s no shortage of ridiculousness, but it’s also an incredible spotlight for Chin’s talents, an actress with decades of experience; despite roles in such films as The Joy Luck Club, Memoirs of a Geisha, and two different Bond films, she’s a relative unknown to American audiences. For those who see Lucky Grandma, that will no longer be a problem.
It begins with Grandma getting her fortune told, which reveals that her lucky day is right around the corner. As we see, this lucky day has been a long time coming. After working with her husband tirelessly for forty years, his death left Grandma alone and broke. Her son offers for her to move into their house, but she’s too independent for that, claiming she’ll pay for her own apartment some way or another. After emptying her bank account of the $1700 it contains, Grandma takes a bus from New York City’s Chinatown to Atlantic City to see just how lucky she really is.
At first, it seems the fortune teller was right, as Grandma wins big in a variety of games, but soon, her overconfidence leads her to lose all her money. Yet, on the bus ride home, the person next to her dies in his sleep, with a packed bag of cash in his lap. Grandma takes the money and goes, without realizing she’s stealing from the Red Dragon gang. Grandma’s attempt at self-reliance takes her down a path she didn’t expect, with gang wars, kidnappings and murders, yet she knows how to handle herself.
With a relatively simple script of escalating obstacles by Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng, Lucky Grandma has fun with its concept without overstaying its welcome. Behind the camera, Sealy makes a remarkably strong first feature with style and simplicity. There’s so much that’s a mystery about Grandma, yet Sealy knows exactly how to present this character and her ambitions to tell the audience just what they need to know.
Grandma often chooses silence in any given situation, so much of her arc relies on Chin’s performance. The way her eyes widen, or a smile sneaks out before Grandma remembers herself all tell more than the script can. Grandma is a character who wants what she’s worked so hard for, and this late in her life, her actions are her last grasp towards something more. The fact that Chin can convey all of that through her mannerisms and very little backstory is quite impressive.
Sealy does a phenomenal job of fleshing out Grandma’s world, showing us her daily routine, her apartment full of reminders of her late husband, and a cast of unusual friends and relatives, like Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), the bodyguard she hires when she starts to get in too deep, and her grandson, David (Mason Yam), whose loud attempts to make YouTube dance videos with his friend barely register with Grandma. All of this adds together to give a fully realized look at who Grandma is with relatively little dialogue.
Lucky Grandma is a small, thoroughly enjoyable action comedy that gives a much deserved focus to the great Chin. Yet hopefully the assured directing of Sealy will also bring her more attention, as she now belongs in the discussion of great up-and-coming Asian-American directors like Lulu Wang and Cathy Yan.
Lucky Grandma is available to stream at The Avalon’s virtual cinema. Watch it here!
BYT makes our living off of things that are currently non-existent as a source of income (arts, events, arts and event advertising). If you’d like to support the work we do, click here. Every little helps right now. Thank you.