US (2019) Dir. Sasie Sealy
So speaks the eponymous senior citizen when all her troubles come to a head, making a mockery of the title since luck is the one thing she is short of. But of course, whilst there is a chance this was fate at the start, it more accurate to say that now it was karma.
Chain-smoking Grandma (Tsai Chin) is in a bit of a funk since her husband of 40 years passed away and didn’t leave her anything in his will. Her well-off son Howard (Eddie Yu) wants her to move in with him and his family but Grandma fears this will mean loss of her independence and refuses. Her fortuneteller Lei Lei (Wai Ching Ho) reveals Grandma is due some luck and when out on her senior citizen’s group day trip, she wins big at the casino.
However, Grandma gets carried away and loses her winnings. On the bus journey home, the bag belonging to the old man next to her falls into Grandma’s lap which is stuffed with money. Discovering the old man had died, Grandma takes the bag home, unaware it actually belongs to the Zhongliang Triad gang, but the rival Red Dagon gang decide to threaten Grandma for the money. Determined to keep it, Grandma hires the towering Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) as her bodyguard.
Over the past few years we have seen the long overdue arrival of films from the US made by and for the Asian community in which the cast is predominantly Asian and the main language is not English. Aside from the Korean entry Minari, most of these films have come from Chinese filmmakers, including Lucky Grandma, in which 98% of the dialogue is Mandarin and the amount of Caucasian faces barely breaks single figures.
It is quite ironic that the film which started this movement Crazy Rich Asians is not just unrepresentative if Asian culture but is also every bit the vapid, over produced mess of lazy stereotypes and clichés it was supposed to be rallying against. Thank god then for Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Sasie Sealy, co-writer and director of this film, for getting it right, partly from being low budget indie affairs.
Despite her cantankerous ways and permanent grumpy mien, Grandma (she is never named) has a likeable air of mischief about her, making her a formidable matriarch you know you should cherish. Her tiny frame and shuffling movements might indicate some physical frailty but her mind is sharp, if a little cynical at times. Clearly a product of her generation, Grandma is a firm believer in respecting your elders and doesn’t suffer fools gladly even if they are twice her size and holding a gun.
Living in a tiny flat with many goldfish prescribed to her by Lei Lei and her omnipotent cigarettes, Grandma seems quite out of place in the plush surroundings of son Howard’s home, barely managing a smile at her own birthday celebrations. There is some pathos in Grandma’s first purchase after taking the money bag home, a gaudy mini chandelier, a symbol of her simple pleasure’s in life but also the incongruity of high living standards for those usually unable to afford it.
A reminder that this is a dark comedy, in case this already wasn’t obvious, comes from the Red Dragon members Pock Mark (Woody Fu) and Little Handsome (Michael Tow). The closest thing to a caricature with their cheap suits and affected swagger, they are far less scary that Sister Fong (Yan Xi) whom the money belongs to, a rarely seen figure whose presence looms ominously over the story.
More gentle comedy arrives in the form of Big Pong, a discount bodyguard (Grandma may be old but she still knows how to haggle) whose behemoth frame disguises a kind soul, surprised and appalled at his own aggression when called on to fight off the Red Dragon goons. His presence gives Grandma some extra confidence but this doesn’t mean she can afford to walk around like the lady of the manor, and the huge size differential is played up for full comic effect.
Where the script works so well is in how this ludicrous situation of an old lady starting a gang war is rooted in a reality that is easily recognisable and relatable regardless of the language barrier. Grandma attending water tai-chi classes, trips to the fruit stall, the grandkids visiting for tea, it is all part of a normal everyday life, which even the threat of a Triad execution cannot disrupt.
Naturally things do get out of hand and we are thrust into the middle of a Hong Kong gang war dispute and whilst the bullet ridden climax won’t compare to the masters like Johnnie To and John Woo, Sealy adapts her shootout this to fit into her low key world to retain the credibility built up over the prior 80-minutes. Juxtaposed with the cheekiness of Grandma’s exploits from earlier, this is a jarring way to conclude the story but the threat was always there, so it doesn’t come across as egregiously unrealistic.
Tsai Chin began her legendary career in Britain and went on to be the first Asian Bond girl in 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Now an octogenarian, you can see every minute of her life in her wrinkled face yet her vigour and energy remains unabated, suffusing her characterisation of Grandma with these attributes. Chin interacts wonderfully with the whole cast but it is the amusing and warm double act with Hsiao-Yuan Ha as Big Pong that steals the show.
Basing a film around an old lady, let alone a Chinese one, is something you wouldn’t see in mainstream Hollywood making Lucky Grandma a film to cherish and applaud, whether you are a film fan or an Asian looking for accurate representation in a US made film. It is also a great debut for Sasie Sealy and I look forward to seeing how she follows up this charming offering.