Back in the “before” times (before pandemics, before lockdowns, before movies were limited to what we can stream from home), a film like Lucky Grandma relied on the buzz generated around top-notch film festivals to build its audiences. After premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival (the 2020 edition, slated for last month, was canceled), Sasie Sealy’s debut feature film—about a Chinese grandmother in New York City who runs into trouble when a bag of money literally falls on her lap—found success at the likes of the London Film Festival, Cucalorus and more.
But even with a strong festival run, it’s hard to find homes for subtitled independent films, and this charming, sometimes dark story with a golden central performance from Tsai Chin (Casino Royale, Memoirs of a Geisha) lost a bit of steam towards the end of last year. Thankfully, the dawn of virtual cinema means that a worthy, thoroughly entertaining film like this gets its chance to shine. Available through Music Box Theatre’s virtual platform (a portion of your purchase supports the theater and the film), Lucky Grandma is a perfect alternative to the mediocre studio fare being sent to streaming services while we’re all home.
After her husband’s passing, Grandma Wong (Chin) lives alone in a small apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She’s a no-frills kind of matriarch; you won’t learn to bake any cookies or darn any socks with this one, though she might teach you when to fold in blackjack and how to pick the most promising slot machine. She visits her son Howard (Eddie Yu) and his family—a well-meaning wife and their three children—in their posh townhouse in the city, but her idea of a good time doesn’t involve watching her grandkids play or being fussed over at dinner. Instead, she’s on the nightly bus out to the casinos with other senior citizens, where she chain smokes her way through a run of good luck at the roulette wheel and other games of chance.
Her luck runs out when, on the bus home from the casino, her seat-mate keels over and his obviously illicit bag of cash ends up on her lap. The money is much more curse than blessing; as the dragon tattoo on the dearly departed’s neck tips her off, this loot belongs to the Red Dragons, a Chinese gang that won’t take too kindly to Grandma Wong’s interference in their business. But if we’ve learned anything about her, it’s that Grandma is not to be messed with. So after two goons—nicknamed Pock Mark (Woody Fu) and Little Handsome (Michael Tow)—pay her a visit looking for the money, she finds herself a bodyguard in an operative from an opposing gang, the gentle giant known as Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha).
What follows is a treat of a heist film only made more charming by the unexpected hilarity of Chin’s performance as a tough-as-nails boss in her own right who’s got an answer for everything and always seems to be a step ahead of her pursuers. With Big Pong as her new shadow, she goes on with her life as usual—water aerobics classes at the community center; having her grandson David (Mason Yam) over to visit—the threat of being found (and worse) by the Red Dragons only growing more inevitable by the day. And sure enough, the gang comes to collect their due, taking something she loves in order to force her hand into returning the money she’s stashed away and swears she doesn’t have.
The film is punctuated by bold filmmaking choices, from close-ups during confrontations that make every exchange that much more intense (Grandma has absolutely no problem standing her ground, thankyouvery much) to a score that’s as playful as it is complementary. And there’s plenty of adventure throughout the various colorful settings, including private poker rooms awash in that iconic green felt and a tiny, neon-lit salon where Big Pong finally gets a chance to show us what he’s made of.
Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng are clearly having fun with their sharp-witted main character, putting this “little old lady” in situations that, by every indication, she should not be able to find her way out of only to see her out-smart everyone around her. By the time it all comes crashing down around her, Sealy and Cheng deliver a final act that works so well because it’s willing to meet the high stakes they’ve spent the first two acts building towards. From a truly impressive shoot-out, a bold choice for any indie production, to a stirring moment of vulnerability from Chin, Lucky Grandma hits every thrilling beat of a crime drama with a heart of gold.