“It’s a joy to see Tsai Chin, who is now 85 years old, play the lead of an action-oriented gangster comedy set in New York City’s Chinatown.”
Title: Lucky Grandma (2019)
Director: Sasie Sealy 👩🏻🇺🇸
Writers: Sasie Sealy 👩🏻🇺🇸 and Angela Cheng 👩🏻🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
When it came time to peruse this year’s offerings from Tribeca Film Festival, I shortlisted several to watch with my friends. Out of many, just one synopsis caught everyone’s eye—Lucky Grandma, directed by Sasie Sealy in her debut feature film.
It’s easy to see why we were so enticed; what’s not to like? An ornery, chain-smoking ah-ma lands herself in hot water when she makes off with a bag of money...money that belongs to gangsters from New York City’s Chinatown. Being grumpy New Yorkers ourselves, with a shared affection for the restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores that cluster south of Canal Street, nothing sounded more appealing than a dark comedy that would speak to our experiences as the children of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants.
That said, Lucky Grandma was sold out mere moments after the box office opened (boo). I managed to scrounge a ticket for myself, but I wish I could have seen it with my friends. The screwball comedy was made for communal viewing—the audience in stitches with every sardonic, judgmental look from Grandma (Tsai Chin) or visual gag of her diminutive stature next to the large body of Big Pong (Corey Ha). And while it generally sticks to silly or sometimes tense capers for its entertainment, deeper moments unearth familial themes of obligation, pride, and independence. I would have loved to have compared notes after the credits rolled, but at the very least, I felt lucky to have seen this refreshing, 88-minute revel.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The very existence of Lucky Grandma hinges on its representation of women behind the scenes. AT&T’s inclusion initiative, Untold Stories, awarded Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng $1 million to make their pitch a reality. The ensuing crew features a large group of women working across occupations—from its director to producers to even its propmaster, Lucky Grandma walks the walk in hiring practices.
Onscreen, Grandma commands the narrative. I’m not sure if a single scene goes by without her, allowing audiences to see and empathize with Grandma’s unenviable situation in full. Grandma could have been depicted as an unscrupulous old woman who takes money that doesn’t belong to her. But thanks to deep investment into her inner life, viewers are made to understand that Grandma’s desire for money doesn’t stem from a place of greed. Rather, having been recently widowed and left utterly penniless by her late husband, money serves as a proxy for independence and freedom.
In a smaller role but no less exciting is Sister Fong (Yan Xi), who rules Chinatown’s most powerful gang. Not unlike Michelle Yeoh’s role in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018), both gang leaders combine the brutal code of the streets with levelheaded strategy while never erasing their femininity. Yeoh’s role still felt beholden to men, however, having been bequeathed the position by her late father and whose story involves cleaning up the mess of her loose cannon of a younger brother. Meanwhile, Sister Fong feels more autonomous. Across the three gangs mentioned in the film, all members give her unequivocal respect (or perish).
Lucky Grandma is an American film made by natives of North Carolina (Sealy) and Houston (Cheng), yet the film unfolds mostly in Chinese as a nod to the unique bubble of New York City’s Chinatown, where learning English is optional for its immigrant community.
Consequently, Chinese culture imbues the film in every way, told through an assortment of immigrant characters like Grandma or Big Pong. In addition, Grandma’s children and grandchildren exemplify the ways migrant families assimilate over time. Her millennial kids are American-born but have internalized aspects of Chinese culture, such as caring for one’s elders without complaint or retaining the ability to speak Mandarin. Meanwhile, her grandchildren feel utterly Americanized. David (Mason Yam) and Luna (Emma Hong) speak only English, and in a memorable scene David makes an exuberant dance video with his best friend who is white.
Underneath it all, filial piety provides the backbone of the story. The film starts off with Grandma balking at the invitation to move in with her son and daughter-in-law upon her husband’s passing. But without them, she can’t afford rent on her Chinatown apartment. This sets a course for Grandma’s need for money, a path that naturally leads to some self-discovery through farcical, come-to-Jesus moments. All the while, family is everything as her grandson gets tangled up in her shenanigans and she must find a way out of the mess she’s made.
Nothing confirms the importance of filial piety more than Sealy’s own concluding words after the premiere’s Q&A session. As the cast and crew began to get ushered out by the theater’s staff, Sealy emphatically said into the mic, fist raised: “Respect your elders!”
Bonus for Age: +1.00
Actor Tsai Chin has enjoyed a storied career that spans six decades, playing key roles such as the matriarch in The Joy Luck Club (1993) or a Bond girl in You Only Live Twice (1967). It’s a joy to see Chin, who is now 85 years old, play the lead of an action-oriented gangster comedy.
Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.08/5
I’m crossing my fingers that Lucky Grandma finds a buyer so that I’ll still have the chance to see this with my friends. In the meantime, perhaps you can have that experience yourself; Lucky Grandma heads to Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 9, so get your tickets now!