LUCKY GRANDMA – Review by Jennifer Merin

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Filmmaker Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma is a darkly comedic drama and unexpectedly poignant action/thriller romp through the intrigued-filled world of an elderly Chinese nainai (the brilliant Tsai Chin) whose assertive risk-all Atlantic City gambling habit lands her in the middle of a violent gang war in NYC’s Chinatown.

Because a Chinese fortune teller declares the day to be auspicious, our chain-smoking Grandma (or Nainai, as she’s called in the film) withdraws her life savings from the bank, climbs aboard an Atlantic City-bound bus, marches into a casino, sits herself down and gambles in a self-assured go-for-broke fashion that has her winning huge — until the casino gets the better of her and she loses everything.

Dazed, confused and penniless, Nainai boards the bus to go back to Chinatown. No spoilers, but on the return trip, she has a windfall that makes her think her good fortune has been restored, but actually lands her in the middle of a raging gang rivalry.

Yet, Nainai is a tough fortune cookie who, whether standing her ground or sneaking away, manages to defy and outwit the bullies. Her face off with the rival gangstas — who are played as stereotypically terrifying yet totally inept — is cringe-worthy yet comedic. And, the film’s life-or-death shoot outs and other action sequences are actually quite absurd and absolutely hilarious.

Meanwhile, in her ‘normal’ life, Nainai’s loving but somewhat strained relationship with her adult children — who treat her like their child and want her to leave her own apartment and come to live with them — presents an amusing yet thought provoking look at a ubiquitous cross-cultural senior citizen issue. Nainai wants to remain independent and resists her son and daughter-in-law’s ploys and pleading, but her threatening encounters with mobsters might just make her change her mind.

Lucky Grandma‘s engaging script, co-written by Sealy and Angela Cheng, is full of unpredictable and delightfully satisfying plot twists, captivating character quirkiness, and lovingly sly social commentary about Chinese-American culture and lifestyle. And behold: Tsai Chin’s performance as the equally adorable and annoying, tough-minded, unfailingly stubborn, chain-smoking Nainai is absolute perfection: she’s superbly adept at physical comedy, but she’s also sublimely skilled at speaking volumes with a silently scalding glance. Brava Tsai Chin, and the rest of the film’s perfectly cast ensemble.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lucky Grandma is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for May 22, 2020

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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 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 a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).