A mobster flick that puts an elderly Chinese woman into a gang war in New York, Lucky Grandma was a bit of light fun to open LFF this year. Following the story of Grandma/Nai Nai (the energetic and cunning Tsai Chin), the story finds her living as a widow in New York. Despite the protestations of her son (Eddie Yu) to move in with the family, she’s fiercely independent.
The chain-smoking pensioners might be old, but she’s skilled in the art of deception. She’s on a winning streak gambling her savings, until a run-in with fate means she crosses paths with an expired elder, a bag of cash, and some unsavoury gangsters: members of the Red Dragon gang. Think Millions set in Chinatown, and you’ll get an idea of the tone the feature is going for.
Director: Sasie Sealy
Release date: April 28, 2019 (Tribeca); October 4, 2019 (LFF)
Rating: Not yet rated
It’s the kind of film you’d suspect a 10-year-old with an active imagination to have written — bizarre but jubilant. In fact, Sasie Sealy is the Emmy-nominated writer behind an episode of Fresh Off The Boat, and brings her experience to create a film that’s both sharply comic and a little sentimental. The fish-out-of-water scenario is an easy way to bring the conflicting worlds together and there’s not a great deal of backstory. But, given the short runtime — it clocked in at around 90 minutes — Lucky Grandma is more of a darkly comic, Coen-esque joyride than some of the more weighty films showing during the festival.
Lucky Grandma is characterised by great performances, with convincing humanity especially in the lovable bodyguard character Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha). The story dealt with the ramifications of telling too many lies and getting caught in a spiral of dishonesty and greed: at its heart, it’s a moral tale of integrity and family. At the end the problems are attributed to greed, but there’s a reason why Nai Nai acts the way she does.
There’s a facile approach to violence for the most part. Faced with her own mortality and that of others, Nai Nai is forced to evaluate how she treats others. Big Pong actually acts as her conscience, paralysed when actually forced to confront and hurt another gangster. The role-reversal positions Nai Nai as an anti-hero and causes her to rethink her attitude.
There were a few things that could have been tied up in order to make the story a little more coherent. A prominent (yet elusive) character is the omniscient Sister Fong. She acts as a spiritual guide to Nai Nai, appearing at moments of decision, but it would have textured the film a little more if this fairy godmother-like figure was given some history. The Chinese-language feature offered plenty of laughs but lacked just a little bit of plot unity that would have helped to give context and round off the film.
But I’m happy just to go along for the ride: it’s enjoyable to see Nai Nai act with so much confidence. We learn about characters, and it’s the small touches, such as watching them eat and talk about soap operas together that make the characters endearing. What could have settled for a neat slice-of-life movie set in Chinatown soon turns into a crazy ride, which will cause you never to look at your grandma in the same way again.