“Lucky Grandma,” says Claire Baiz in her fifth Tribeca dispatch, “features richly layered characters in director Sasie Sealy’s homage to Chinatown that make this universal tale both reassuring and groundbreaking.” The film, with an outstanding performance by Tsai Chin as the title character, is the product of a promising – and now fruitful – “alliance between the Tribeca Film Festival, the year-round nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute, and AT&T, intended to support diversity in filmmaking.”
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呸!谁需要字幕。(Bah! Who needs subtitles.)
Lucky Grandma is told in Mandarin, subtitled (and peppered) with English, but that wouldn’t stop someone who spoke neither language from keeping up with the action in this dark-comic caper film.
It’s the richly layered characters that inhabit director Sasie Sealy’s homage to Chinatown that make this universal tale both reassuring and groundbreaking.
The reassuring part is the world that award-winning director and writer Sealy (The Elephant Garden, Dance Mania Fantastic) and cowriter Angela Chang, a one-time stand-up comic and TED Talk director, build around the title character.
The groundbreaking part is the spunky, fissure-faced, chain-smoking dark superhero, Grandma Wong.
Wong, played by acclaimed Chinese-born British actress, singer, director, teacher and author Tsai Chin (Joy Luck Club, Memoirs of a Geisha), gives us an aging Chinese heroine who’s a mixture of Lao Tsu, Jackie Chan, and Bea Arthur’s “Maude.”
Grandma Wong, a faithful practitioner of Tai Chi, doesn’t need to resort to martial arts (much). She doesn’t philosophize (except where a wise word is called for). She’s not the loudest person in the room (unless she’s holding a wok).
Grandma Wong moves the story simply by moving her face. It’s a relief map of the conflicted human condition. She’s mischievous and fearful, resigned and prideful, smug yet tender – the only thing all Grandma Wong’s faces share is that they are liberally soaked in Szechuan sauce.
Grandma Wong gives us a chance to reflect on the powerful women in our lives: women worthy of admiration, love, and fear. Women who have given us The Look.
It takes a big man to share the screen with Grandma Wong. Lucky Grandma features Corey Ha, a 6’ 7” former professional basketball player from Taiwan who has become a bankable name in Asian films and TV (Age of Rebellion, Family Time).
Ha plays Grandma Wong’s foil, cut-rate bodyguard Big Pong. Ha, who is described by director and writer Sealy as a “Chinese Andre the Giant,” manages to stuff a lot of talent – and a fair amount of Grandma Wong’s cooking – into his 6’7” frame.
High production values, solid casting, crisp editing: all this costs money. Grandma Wong may be lucky (or not), but filmmakers Sealy and Chang had the advantages of talent, moxie . . . and a million bucks.
Written, directed, and produced by women, Lucky Grandma was the winner of 2018’s Untold Stories grant: a multi-year, multi-tier alliance between the Tribeca Film Festival, the year-round nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute, and AT&T, intended to support diversity in filmmaking. This investment deserves applause.
Money doesn’t just buy talent – it buys precious time to flesh out a filmmaker’s world. New York City’s Chinatown is a beloved character in Lucky Grandma, stylized to both soften and sizzle. With thoughtful use of lighting, cinematography, background actors, and especially set design, Chinatown (Year of the Dragon, China Girl, Chinatown …) deserves its own film credit.
Chinatown is portrayed as a jumble of rakish-lit alleys, buzzing neon, Asian-made wares, and colorful characters that spill onto crowded sidewalks; inside there are floor-to-ceiling labyrinths, a basement mahjong parlor, and the half-hidden den of one of Chinatown’s gangs, inhabited by overdressed small-time hoods.
The most memorable space in Lucky Grandma is the small, not-so-safe haven of the title character’s Chinatown walk-up. Grandma Wong’s humble home is meant to stir memories and spur associations. It’s carefully crafted with a cramped entry, a scuffed blood-red door that matches Grandma Wong’s cheap down jacket, and grimy knickknacks that take up too much of her kitchen table.
I can’t help but root for Grandma Wong, a bristly female protagonist who isn’t just over fifty – she’s over EIGHTY. Unlike many films with older stars (seriously, I’m not giving much away here), she doesn’t have to die in the end to make us wistful.
As an occupant of two of Grandma Wong’s three demographic niches (I’m not Chinese), I appreciate the successful portrayal of a mature woman who, despite some aches and pains, is, instead of doddering, dogged as hell.
Grandma Wong swallows the indignity (and yes, invisibility) of old womanhood: the smiling dismissals, the suggestion that “you can’t afford/don’t need/are too old for that” . . . . Who can blame Grandma Wong for having the urge to do something bold, even if it’s downright devious?
Despite a fair amount of action, there’s a cultural current of respect in Lucky Grandma’s characters. Everyone – even Grandma Wong’s worst enemies – refer to her as “grandmother” or “auntie.”
There’s also a tight supporting cast: Grandma Wong’s young grandson David, played by Mason Yam (Falling Water, Master of None), deserves kudos for nuance. Wai Ching Ho (Marvel franchise’s Madame Gao, Daredevil), has brief but powerful moments as the fortune-teller who portends and propels Grandma’s luck.
Sister Fong, played by Yan Xi (She’s Out of My League, Hollidaysburg) blows sexism out of the steam room in a spiffy throwback scene. We’ve come a long way, baby, when it’s no longer safe for an old woman to have a schvitz in a caper film.
The bumbling smalltime gang members (especially Michael Tow, who plays Little Handsome) deserve credit for tragicomic relief.
Like a lot of dark comedies, Lucky Grandma has issues with tone. One creatively disturbing violent act early in the movie primes the audience for more – after that, nothing compares. Some of the actors’ reactions seem off-kilter, as if emotions that might not fit had to be left on the cutting-room floor.
A little lathering and some seams in the silk aside, Sealy and Chang wagered their million-dollar Untold Stories grant and hit the trifecta with a female-driven, Asian American, senior citizen dark comedy.
For these filmmakers, the Tribeca Film Festival is a claiming race. I know what Grandma Wong would say. 大赌注，大赢。(Big wager, big win.)