MOVIE OF THE WEEK May 22, 2020: LUCKY GRANDMA

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motw logo 1-35It’s not often that a sharp-tongued, chain-smoking grandmother is the main character in a movie — and that alone would be enough to make filmmaker Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma stand out from the crowd. But the film also has a tight script, memorable characters brought to life with wonderful performances, and a strong sense of place, all of which contribute to its success.
 
After pinpointing the day that her good luck is supposed to be at its peak, Grandma (Tsai Chin) heads to an Atlantic City casino. Everything goes her way until it doesn’t, and she’s dismayed to be heading home empty-handed. But then her seatmate on the bus dies unexpectedly, and his bag full of cash literally falls into her lap. What seems like an act of providence turns out to be much more complicated: The money belongs to a New York City gang, and they want it back.

Grandma pleads ignorance — but she also hires a bodyguard, gentle giant Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and keeps her eyes peeled for trouble. When it inevitably finds her, she has to face down danger with no more than a frying pan and her wits. Through it all, she remains a prickly but sympathetic character; when she finally explains why she felt entitled to her windfall, you can’t help but nod in understanding.

Lucky Grandma is set almost entirely in NYC’s Chinatown, and it’s clear that director/writer Sealy and co-writer Angela Chen know the neighborhood well. The film’s characters and their interactions always feel authentic, as does Grandma’s eventual understanding that it’s OK if your good luck comes in the form of friends and family, rather than cold, hard cash. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: A crusty senior citizen helps herself to a dead man’s cash, only to discover the money really belongs to Chinatown gangsters in this exuberant comedy drama given wings by octogenarian Tsai Chin’s brilliant performance as chain-smoking, curmudgeonly Grandma. Dead set against moving to her son’s Brooklyn home, the Manhattan senior looks at her sudden windfall as her ticket to keeping her apartment and she is not about to give it back. Frequently hilarious, especially in the delirious physical humor derived from the sheer size differential between ultra-petite Grandma and the giant (6’7″ former pro basketball player Hsiao-Yuan Ha) she hires to guard her. But in portraying Grandma’s determination to maintain her independence, the film also has some serious and poignant points to make about the plight facing many elderly people. Director/co-writer Sasie Sealy maintains a happy balance of dark humor, action, and pathos in her debut, an evocative depiction of a headstrong woman and the Chinatown outsiders never see.

Marina Antunes At some point in our lives, all we want is to be self-sufficient. The Grandma in Sasie Sealy’s feature film debut Lucky Grandma wants exactly that. But Grandma’s quiet life is turned upside down when she inadvertently becomes involved with the Chinese Mafia, who kidnap her grandson in order to get her to submit. Funny, sweet, ridiculous, sad and emotionally resonant, Sealy’s debut is hugely entertaining and Tsai Chin is charming and completely unforgettable as the titular Grandma.

Nell Minow: The exhuberant vitality of Lucky Grandma is a delight, with a wonderfully droll performance by Tsai Chin.

Jennifer Merin Filmmaker Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma is a darkly comedic drama and unexpectedly poignant action/thriller romp through the world of an elderly Chinese nainai whose assertive risk-all Atlantic City gambling habit lands her in the middle of a violent gang war in NYC’s Chinatown. The engaging script, co-written by Sealy and Angela Cheng, is full of unpredictable plot twists, captivating character quirkiness, and sly social commentary. And behold: Tsai Chin’s performance as the equally adorable and annoying, tough-minded, unfailingly stubborn, chain smoking granny is absolute perfection — supported by a superb ensemble.

Leslie Combemale Lucky Grandma is as delightful as it is weird. It’s also a celebration of cranky chain-smoking grandmas everywhere. In the title role, Tsai Chin absolutely runs the show, and charismatically broods her way through the film. She is a near-forgotten old lady who low-key rages her way through these bizarre experiences, taking back her own narrative in the process. It is a powerful commentary about ageism and the power of women at any age, but also the hopelessness that bubbles up as society marks the elderly as no longer of interest, or a part of the action, or having the remotest chance of being a threat. The character is barely likable, and all the better for it. The audience feels her pain and frustration no less for knowing so little about her. Director and co-writer Sasie Sealy tells a very human story, all dressed up as a gang-war dramedy.

MaryAnn Johanson I love this movie! Such a wonderful riff on gangster movies, full of such silly, gentle comedy and instantly vivid characters. But also quite a poignant portrait of an elderly woman desperate to retain her independence as destitution not of her own making sets in. Tsai Chin is a gritty delight. A terrific feature debut from writer-director Sasie Sealy. Read full review.

Loren King Sasie Sealy’s debut feature Lucky Grandma is a delightful combination of quirky character study and crime movie. Veteran actress Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club, Casino Royale) gives us a refreshingly irascible mature woman who’s not the usual endearing or “feisty” elderly character. Instead, her Grandma Wong is a chain smoking, grumpy, disheveled Chinese-American widow living alone in New York City’s Chinatown. Shot in realistic locales, from cramped apartments to neon soaked streets, the film has a noir-meets-dark comedy appeal. Grandma finds herself caught in a Chinatown gang war after she impulsively swipes a bag of cash from a man who dies in the seat beside her on the bus leaving a casino (the gambling scenes were shot at Foxwoods in Connecticut) where Grandma gambled away her savings believing she was protected by luck. Desperate to protect herself, Grandma employs the services of a teddy bear of a bodyguard (a likable Corey Ha) from a rival gang. Grandma is a great creation: a flawed, prickly character beautifully embodied by Tsai Chin. Sealy builds a crime thriller with dark humor around her mistakes and her defiance, born of her suspicious nature and her desire to remain independent.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Tsai Chin gives a gutsy and riveting performance as the acerbic, chain-smoking titular character in director and co-writer Sasie Sealy’s remarkably entertaining dramedy, Lucky Grandma. Heartfelt and hilarious, this Chinatown, New York-set black comedy is a true crowd pleaser. Chin’s chemistry with Corey Ha, who plays her bodyguard Big Pong, is delightful. There’s a wonderful authenticity to the story, exploring several issues of substance (aging, immigrant communities, inter-generational relationships) and offering a wildly original heist-film narrative. Asian Americans are woefully underrepresented on screen, and when they are, they tend to be young heartthrobs, comedians, and martial artists. The fact that Lucky Grandma not only features an all-Asian cast but stars a tough-as-nails octogenarian makes it an even bigger win.

Liz Whittemore Lucky Grandma is a creative twist on the crime genre. Exploring cultural stubbornness and generational friendship, the film has so much heart. Shot entirely in New York’s Chinatown, the authenticity of language and layout play their own character. With an incredibly nuanced performance from our leading lady Tsai Chin, Lucky Grandma is a big winner.

Cate Marquis It all starts with a fortune-teller, telling a recently-widowed older Chinese woman she’s in for a year of good luck and particularly should be on the look out for her “lucky day.” Grandma Wong really could use some good luck but, with her dangling cigarette and cynical attitude, she is also one tough cookie. Sasie Sealy’s darkly comic action/adventure drama Lucky Grandma focuses New York’s Chinatown and Grandma Wong, played with irresistible, irascible charm by Tsai Chin. When grandma wins a prize at her bank, she figures her lucky day has arrived and heads for the casino. Well, it has and it hasn’t, as she embarks on a wild adventure involving rival Chinatown gangs, family, heart and upended expectations, in this entertaining film.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Lucky Grandma

Director: Sasie Sealy

Release Date: May 22, 2020

Running Time: 87 minutes

Language: English, Mandarin with subtitles, Cantonese with subtitles

Screenwriters: Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng

Distribution Company: Good Deed Entertainment

Trailer

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).