Release date: May 22, 2020 (wide release via virtual screenings)
Director: Sasie Sealy
Screenplay by: Angela Cheng and Sasie Sealy
Cast: Tsai Chin, Corey Ha Hsiao-Yuan, Michael Tow, Woody Fu, Wai Ching Ho, Clem Cheung, Yan Xi, Mason Yam
Lucky Grandma is the hilarious and focused first feature of director Sasie Sealy, who co-wrote the movie with Angela Cheng. Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club, You Only Live Twice, The Dream of Red Mansions) is a definite star as Grandma Wong, a woman in her eighties who is unreserved with her words and her cigarettes. Wishing to stay in her apartment, although her son offers her a place in his home, she still seeks to improve her own fortune.
“There’s definitely parts of my mom in [Grandma],” Sealy mentions in this interview. “Angela’s grandmother is in there for sure; a little bit of my grandma, but mostly the fact she was a smoker. There’s a stereotype of these quiet, subservient Asian women. I don’t know where this comes from,” she says, incredulously. “They are definitely not in my family.”
This is an excellent character study that doesn’t scream “character study,” though the fortune-telling opener is intended as an homage to Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. Most scenes are contained within the blocks of New York’s Chinatown. Everyone knows everyone and watches everyone, even on the buses that stop to take passengers to distant casinos. The plot unfolds quickly, at an efficient pace filled with surprises and character turns. Eventually Grandma Wong hires the bodyguard Big Pong, played with gentle comic skill by Taiwanese actor Corey Ha, and runs into one of the neighborhood crime bosses (Yang Xi).
Almost all of the crew were women, and editor Hye Mee Na knows how to cut sharp for comedy. Solid cinematography by Eduardo Enrique Mayén compliments the sharp script. However, I must add that the soundtrack selections were more engaging than the bouncy indie original score.
I watched this film earlier in the year at San Francisco Indiefest, where I overheard a nearby Chinese-American millennial tell her companion that she preferred this film to The Farewell, in overall enjoyment and in how it represents her community. I haven’t seen The Farewell yet, so I can’t add anything else to her remark.
Many viewers may see Lucky Grandma as only a light crime caper that alternately plays with conventions and defies them. Yet there are details and emotional journeys that resonate beyond the comedy level. You’re sure to enjoy watching feisty Grandma Wong’s adventures.
The US virtual theater premieres, via Good Dead Entertainment, start on May 22, though there are later US and Canada listings posted on the official screening website.
These screenings are in partnership with the grassroots New York initiative Welcome to Chinatown.