Written and directed by Sasie Sealy and co-written by Angela Cheng, set in New York City’s Chinatown, an ornery, chain-smoking Chinese grandma goes all in at the casino, landing herself on the wrong side of luck and in the middle of a gang war. Starring: Tsai Chin, Hsiao-Yuan Ha, Michael Tow, Woody Fu, Yan Xi, Wai Ching Ho, Clem Cheung, Eddie Yu, Mason Yam and Lyman Chen.
The initial impression this film gives is one somewhere between Ocean’s Eleven and St. Vincent, Grandma (Chin) is classically obstinate, grumpy and anti-social but somehow her icy attitude only makes you want to see what happens more. The way that they introduce the film and her character has a sly quality, there’s something charming in her arrogance and her self-satisfied air is naturally captivating. Chin’s performance is consistently ill-tempered throughout and yet it never pushes you away from her, it’s as if you can see a spark of kindness behind her eyes and commit to waiting for it to come out. The other side of that draw comes from respecting her honesty, her blunt and frank nature is a joy to watch, there’s no filter to be found and that kind of brutal candour is refreshing which Chin brings with such an effortless quality, the whole performance feels very natural.
Much like any story about an obstinate old person who’s slowly disconnected themselves from society, someone always comes along to pull them out of their shell and in this case, it’s Big Pong (Ha). The relationship that Chin and Ha build between these two is something sweet to watch, how Grandma gradually and perhaps unwittingly starts to appreciate his presence for more than just protection. Ha gives a great performance as Big Pong, he’s adorable and has the typical image of toughness and strength but is a big softy underneath and adds nicely to the film’s comedic side.
One of the film’s strengths is how committed it is to showing the Chinese community in New York, with most of the dialogue being in Mandarin and showing how much this neighbourhood has created a stolen corner of China to embrace and celebrate their culture. A number of films have included Chinatown but they always feel undeniably American, whereas this feels like a Chinese film, set in New York, similar to what Lulu Wang did with The Farewell in creating a blend of cultures. It helped that Sealy didn’t fall for the classic trap of trying to present a tourist view of New York, keeping a strong focus rather than taking away from it with panning views of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Sealy’s direction shows a great deal of strengths, its style is slick but humble, it brings through this danger and gangster edge into Grandma’s daily, rather mundane, existence rather than trying to take her out of it.
The writing has a silly and slapstick vein running through it, it creates this adventure style atmosphere, one that’s particularly supported by a very playful score. Some of its story feels reminiscent of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, accidentally getting involved with local gangsters and trying to outrun the consequences, it moves at a great pace and there’s plenty of action thrown in. It allows a lot of the comedy to come through Grandma’s naturally brash persona which is undeniably funny but at the same time does feel like they could have lent into it more, it’s there but not as consistently as it could be. There’s also one scene that feels completely out of place, involving her grandson and best friend recording a dance routine, it’s very clearly just there to set up a later scene but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film’s tone. The ending also feels very anti-climactic, it doesn’t satisfyingly round out what they’ve built to up until that moment, it doesn’t savour it or have a strong personality as with the rest of the film, it’s sadly lacklustre.
Lucky Grandma is likely to go down as an iconic iteration of a bad ass senior citizen, Grandma Wong is typically grumpy but with a unique personality and is brought to life by a superb performance from Tsai Chin. The story has action, adventure, comedy, thrill, family and friendship, it’s a blend that isn’t often brought to the screen in today’s cinema and even less often done well but it creates a slightly silly, fun atmosphere that’s extremely entertaining. It could have embraced the silliness and its somewhat slapstick sense of humour more strongly to really push the comedy further but that doesn’t stop it from being a joy to watch.