Film Review: Lucky Grandma
By Erik Nielsen
Lucky Grandma, the new film from director Sasie Sealy, is a crime-caper-comedy, owing much of its influence to the Coen Brothers. The film is about an old woman who must face her own decisions, a bag of money, and angry gangsters. It’s a film which successfully builds a world that you’d be hard pressed to find in the American mainstream. What Sealy has done is tell an important story that isn’t preachy, despite its weight of significance. She chose to write the lead for an 82-year old Chinese woman which is a risk unto itself. But, she’s funny, heartfelt, light, and tragic. We don’t get to see characters like her on screen because of the mainstream dogmatisms of Chinese characters and how they ‘ought to be’ in movies.
Grandma Wong, played by veteran actress Tsai Chin (from Casino Royale or Memoirs of a Geisha) is a hard-working, stoic, and frankly badass old woman. Early in the film, she is told by a fortune teller that her luck is about to change. She forays through her daily routine; smokes cigarettes like they add years to her life, does Tai Chi at the local recreational center, and throws out her birthday cake when her family wants to celebrate. She’s a known character in the Chinatown district of Manhattan. Referred to as Granny, she is hopeful that a neighborhood trip to the casino will bring her the luck that the fortune teller has promised her.
In a hilarious montage, we see Granny continually bet the number “8” at the Roulette table and win every time. She takes the casino’s money until the very last hand where she goes all in against the local gangsters. Ultimately, she loses all the money we thought she was going to walk away with. But, with a “stroke” of luck, the man sitting next to her on the bus ride home has a heart attack. He dies silently, and without hesitation, Grandma Wong takes the bag of money he had with him.
It’s not long before two gangsters are awaiting her at her apartment where the instantly iconic Little Handsome (Michael Tow), a henchman from the local Red Dragon gang, drags a knife across his tongue - he then hawks bloody phlegm on Grandma’s shoes. She denies any knowledge of the money and sparks her signature cigarette. A recurring motif throughout - the cigarette both alleviates the stress and is a show of her power, just for the hell of it. Characters like Little Handsome are a welcome occurrence, as Sealy fills the film with a colorful cast of memorable characters, including an Andre-the-Giant-like, doe-eyed bodyguard.
What then ensues, after Grandma Wong seeks help from the local gang, is a mix of comedy and violence that the Coen Brothers bring to their films, as Grandma’s life is in constant danger and peril. But, the filmmakers’ approach isn’t to weigh us down with melodrama. When the characters face hardship she uses humor to pry at their unusual circumstances. The lightness of the potentially dark material had an impact on viewers - the use of sight gags and slapstick humor to counteract life-threatening altercations balance the film and gives way to many ‘laugh out loud’ moments.
The film is not only important because it showcases the arrival of a new talent (Sasie Sealy) who penned the script and directed the film, but it also showcases a slice of a life that doesn’t often grace America’s big screen--the perspective of Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants. While Crazy Rich Asians may have awakened the mainstream to a new side of storytelling, Sealy should be trusted to carry that mantle further.
The film was the second recipient of the AT&T Presents: Untold Stories initiative, which granted the filmmakers one million dollars to create the film.