There’s a reason the phrase “The Greatest Generation” gets tossed around when describing the grandparents of millennials. They’ve seen things we can’t imagine. For some, it begins around the First World War, and continues into Women’s Suffrage, The Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, The Civil Rights Movement, The Stonewall Riots, the AIDS epidemic, and more. Put simply, they’ve seen some things. Perhaps this is why most people would describe their grandparents as the type to be cute and cuddly with the grandkids and ready to cut someone if you dare disrupt their kin. The first feature film by Sasie Sealy and co-written with Angela Cheng, Lucky Grandma is a story of one such individual: a woman, recently widowed, who cares not what you think or what you want, having spent so much of her life working morning to night to provide for her son. Known only as Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin), she is the center of a darkly comedic crime thriller wherein she decides to keep a bag of money that literally falls from the sky into her lap, putting her on a hit list with a gang known as The Red Dragon. Filled with twists and turns akin to an early Guy Ritchie flick, Sealy and Cheng craft a tale that’s hilarious and action-packed with just the right amount of heart.
For a little context, Lucky Grandma is the second recipient of AT&T’s Untold Stories grant, supported by AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute. Sealy and Cheng used the funds awarded in 2018 to shoot the film largely in New York’s Chinatown before debuting at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Upon watching the film, you, too, will understand what the judges saw in Sealy and Cheng’s concept. Theirs is not a film like Bad Ass (2012) or RED (2010) with a highly trained retired individual (or individuals) finding themselves in a situation beyond their control. Everything in the film is heightened for comedic or atmospheric purposes, but it is never outlandish or ridiculous. Grandma Wong doesn’t physically restrain her assailants or indulge in gunplay. She’s just a woman who finds herself in an extraordinary situation. Like any other grandmother, Wong is hardened and critical where it counts, incredibly clever, and in possession of a soft spot for those closest to her. A great deal of Lucky Grandma is stylized via lighting or framing to convey a hyperrealism amid the familiar, making even the simple things seem grand, complex, or downright funny. In a montage shortly after the introduction of Lei Lei the Fortune Teller (Wai Ching Ho) and the message of luck which spurns much of the events forward, the brassy horns of Yahan Chang’s “So Long” plays as we see Wong come home and go about her life, shopping, exercising, etc. One small portion of the montage exemplifies the clever, yet simple sensibilities of Sealy as director and it’s a small one that really kicks things off. Having returned home from the reading, Wong lights incense for the alter, upon which a photo of a man rests. Given the customs of the people, the audience can quickly presume that the man is her husband, making her a widow. From the physical performance by Chin, stone-faced, focused, still, the audience can tell that she’s not upset about his passing, but upset with the man himself. To convey the intensity of frustration, the screen changes from a shot of the alter to Wong, alternating back and forth in rhythm with drum beat, the camera moving closer to their individually framed faces with each switch. Nothing in this brief sequence is especially grand or stylized, but it’s humorous, possesses momentum, and carries the narrative forward without a line of dialogue.
What keeps the film especially grounded is that the situation Wong finds herself in is completely of her own doing. The reason why Wong keeps the money is slowly teased through the film, a wise move as it allows the sharp edge of Wong to dull after repeated attempts on her life. Initially, the film wants us to think it’s because Lei Lei tells her that luck is coming and this works as a concrete and, in some cases, believable motivation. Especially as Wong finds herself in need of a bodyguard for protection, Wong remains obstinate, convinced that money is rightfully her thanks to fate. Though Lucky Grandma possesses aspects of the metaphysical and religious, they’re not directly explored, but are used more of as a means to an end. Instead, it allows Sealy and Cheng to explore the idea of what people believe they are owed and what they are willing to endure privately to get it.
So much of Lucky Grandma isn’t explained that it comes down to the performances to make things come alive. Chin is captivating as Wong, doing more with a scowl and an exhale of cigarette smoke than most convey with a five-minute monologue. She undeniably owns the entire picture, creating the foundation from which the other performances must spring forth. As her bodyguard Big Pong, Corey Ha, also known as Hsiao-Yuan Ha, is her absolute opposite. He’s 6’7”, kind-hearted, and is only working in protection to pay off his debts. Ha imbues Big Pong with a genuine sweetness that not only offsets Wong’s unhindered abrasiveness, but enables Wong to relax in ways the audience doesn’t see when she’s alone. The rest of the cast is equally strong, but the film largely belongs to Chin and Ha. For their part, Sealy and Cheng hired cast members who reflect the complex structure of Chinese culture and none are presented in any way which might insult or denigrate. They discuss this in greater detail in a behind the scenes video “Asian and American Influences Define Lucky Grandma,” a must-watch for any fans of the film.
Even without watching it, it’s obvious to anyone that Lucky Grandma is as much a comedic crime thriller as it is a slice of life film. Sealy and Cheng invite the audience into an adventure, to explore a world that meshes the fiction with the real, where audiences can feel like they’re transported, seeing Chinatown in a new, fresh way even though the film is shot within a very real and vibrant community. Astute viewers are likely to catch the aura of Sealy’s influences in the few action-centric sequences that use what’s available within the physical space to create tension a la Rumble in the Bronx or Kung Fu Hustle. Except Wong is no a martial arts master; she’s just a woman, a woman who’s not yet ready to be done with life, who’s got plenty more miles to go. It’s something which the majority of characters we meet come to realize and it’s likely why you’ll find yourself charmed by this ball-busting grandma.
Available in Kino Marguee Virtual Theaters and Alamo On Demand Virtual Theaters beginning May 22nd, 2020.
Head to the Lucky Grandma website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.