Last summer we saw The Farewell, a film revolving around a sweet old Chinese woman that struck a chord with American audiences. However, if you like your old Chinese ladies a little less nice and a little more edgy, the Grand Berry Theater is streaming Lucky Grandma starting this weekend.
We first see cantankerous, chain-smoking Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) having a fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho) inform her that her luck is set to be insanely good in the near future, especially on October 28th. As an impoverished retiree in New York City who proudly refuses her son’s offer for her to live with his family, she could certainly use some good fortune. Come that day, she takes one of her periodic trips to the casinos in Atlantic City with a bus full of other Chinese seniors, but her luck doesn’t come until the return trip home, when a man with a gang tattoo on his neck quietly passes away in the seat next to her. When his bag falls on her, she finds it stuffed with cash and takes it home. Alas, mobsters frequently come attached to mob money, and soon afterwards Grandma Wong returns from her afternoon shopping to find two thugs in her apartment demanding to know where she’s hiding the bills.
This is reminiscent of Wayne Wang’s 1982 independent film Chan Is Missing, a scruffy thriller that seldom leaves Chinatown and mines its unlikely protagonist for humor. First-time feature filmmaker Sasie Sealy finds the laughs in Grandma Wong shoving people out of her way to reach the roulette table at the casino and betting everything on eight — a lucky number in Chinese superstition — causing the croupier to stack her chips three feet high on the spot. The humor often comes from the specific culture it takes place in; when the old woman finds a girlie magazine with the cash for some reason, she places the pornography in her home’s Buddhist shrine alongside a picture of her dead husband. Her troubles with the mob cause her to turn to a rival gang, which provides her with an extremely large, not overly bright bodyguard (Corey Ha), and well, the sight of a huge man sitting on a tiny chair is always good for a laugh.
Where Sealy runs into trouble is balancing the hijinks with the increasing body count around our protagonist. She can’t strike the right tone, as the climactic shootout is neither funny nor an effective catharsis for the energies built up. The film is best appreciated as a showcase for Tsai Chin, the 87-year-old actress whose CV stretches back to the 1950s and includes The Joy Luck Club and a couple of James Bond movies. She laces this character with lingering bitterness over her husband frittering away the family business and leaving her with his debts. Too often American movies about older women have them leading comfortable lives and facing low-stakes dilemmas. Lucky Grandma shows it doesn’t have to be this way.
Starring Tsai Chin and Corey Ha. Directed by Sasie Sealy. Written by Angela Cheng and Sasie Sealy. Not rated.