Leading roles for women of a certain age may be thin on the ground, but leading roles for Asian women — of any age — are practically nonexistent. Lucky Grandma, the debut feature from Sasie Sealy, proves the exception to both rules, gifting veteran actress Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club, Casino Royale) the kind of character that would be easy to overplay in lesser hands. The story of a charmingly irascible New York pensioner who finds herself caught between two Chinatown gangs after she swipes a bag of cash that doesn’t belong to her, the film features hardly any spoken English at all, and very amusingly captures a hermetic immigrant culture in which nobody so much as considers calling the police. The filmmaker, whose credits include several shorts as well as work on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, demonstrates a deft control of tone throughout, balancing deadpan cracks with something more wistful.
Spurred into action by a fortune-teller who predicts a run of good luck, the recently widowed Grandma Wong (Chin) decides to withdraw all her savings from the bank and head to the casino. She does so in a bid to maintain her independence: Sick of paying for two apartments, her first-generation son wants her to move in with his family, including two thoroughly Westernized grandchildren, in Brooklyn. But after initially killing it at the roulette wheel, Grandma loses everything, and staggers back to the courtesy bus in a daze. Chin expertly delivers a series of sharp looks and startled glares, and one of her most potent is bestowed on the man who sits down beside her, flush with his success at the same blackjack table that was her undoing. Shortly afterwards she realizes, with a kind of karmic satisfaction, that he’s stopped breathing. The man’s winnings quite literally fall into her lap, and Grandma makes the fateful decision to divest the corpse of its earthly belongings.
What follows is familiar from so many Coen outings, to which the director has acknowledged a debt, but it’s distinguished by the character at the center, who comes off less like a greedy rube and more like an old-fashioned, if forbidding, heroine. Grandma returns to her apartment the next day and finds two thugs in shiny suits lolling about in her living room. They know she was sitting beside the dead man — a money launderer, it turns out, for the mob — and are pretty well convinced she’s taken their blood money.
Seeking protection, she turns to a rival gang, and Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng have fun with the particulars of the Chinese-American underworld, to which Grandma gains access by asking a local street hawker for a specific brand of designer handbag. She’s swiftly ushered to the back of a shop, where she proceeds to ruthlessly barter down the price of protection services, bamboozling the young goons who just want to get back to their video game. Production designer Cassia Maher is aided here and elsewhere by the use of real locations, from Chinatown mahjong parlors and hair salons to Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Grandma’s new bodyguard, a sweet giant named Big Pong, is played by Corey Ha, a Taiwanese star and former basketball player whose height, girth and doughy features contrast (to calculatedly adorable effect) with Chin’s stature and her character’s severity. Pong is working for the gang to pay off a debt, and really just wants to return home to China, but his size makes him good at his job. He’s given a wide berth whether he’s standing guard as Grandma does her poolside Tai Chi (rather than in the pool with the instructor, where she’d have to actually pay for the session) or dealing with irritable neighbors. Client and customer develop a rapport based on his appreciation for her cooking and her respect for his powers of intimidation, but their burgeoning relationship is complicated when Pong discovers that the money liberated by Grandma was in fact stolen from his own gang, rather than from its rival.
The film’s tone of comic misadventure is buoyed by Andrew Orkin’s jazzy score, but it doesn’t preclude moments of genuine pathos. Grandma delivers a monologue full of love and frustration for the dead husband she worked alongside for 40 years, seven days a week, but who left her penniless. The director and her cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén never stray far from their leading lady’s face, and the Tianjin-born Chin delivers a performance of impressive minimalism, one that feels true rather than ingratiating. Her expression is inscrutable as the dingy interiors of Manhattan finally give way to the leafy outer boroughs, in a touching familial conclusion that suggests that sometimes, a run of bad luck might be just the ticket.
Production companies: Treehead Films, Parris Pictures
Cast: Tsai Chin, Corey Ha, Michael Tow, Woody Fu, Wai Ching Ho, Clem Cheung
Director: Sasie Sealy
Screenwriters: Angela Cheng, Sasie Sealy
Producers: Cara Marcous, Krista Parris
Cinematographer: Eduardo Enrique Mayén
Production designer: Cassia Maher
Costume designer: Aubrey Laufer
Editor: Hye Mee Na
Music: Andrew Orkin
Casting: Jessica Daniels
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Sales: Treehead Films, Parris Pictures