Arriving amidst the much hyped recent wave of Hollywood Asian films after 2018’s breakthrough success Crazy Rich Asians, Sasie Sealy’s feature debut Lucky Grandma is an authentic story of an 80-year-old Chinese-American grandma whose luck turns her world upside down.
Living in the heart of New
York City’s Chinatown, newly-widowed Grandma (portrayed brilliantly by the
Chinese-English actress Tsai Chin) has no care in the world except for knowing
when life will bring her luck in the form of money. When her recent visit to her
regular fortuneteller (Wai Ching Ho) confirms that she is finally going to get
lucky, grandma creates a perfect plan: she takes all the money from her bank
account and gambled it all on her group trip to the casino. After winning one
game after another, she gets reckless, and finally loses all of her money in
her final game. However, (un)fortunately, her luck has not run out yet. On a
peculiar moment, a bag of money falls into her hands and changes her life
Chin, a veteran who also
starred in The Joy Luck Club (1993) and
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), is the
true gem of this film. Her convincing performance as an aging Asian grandma is
strengthened by the film cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén’s tight shots.
Crafted beautifully with great details, Sealy and Mayén create out-of-worldly
scenes by using lights, smoke, and steam to embody different emotions
throughout the film. Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng write their dialogues in
such a playful way, combining English with Mandarin and Cantonese, delivering
believability in the most ludicrous situations. They manage to avoid typical
stereotypes and give power to their female characters such as Grandma as the
lead and the notorious most-feared gang leader Sister Fong (Yan Xi).
It is difficult to put this film in one genre, as it has the perfect mix of drama, action, and dark comedy. With many surprising twists, Lucky Grandma brings us through a roller coaster of emotions, caused not only by events that unfold but also by the history and interactions of the characters. The stubborn Grandma continuously chain-smoke and refuses any help from anybody, even from her own family. But as the film’s plot takes an unexpected turn and Grandma finds herself in the middle of a gang war, she decides to hire a bodyguard named Big Pong (played by Taiwanese actor Corey Ha). Apt to his namesake, Big Pong’s big stature creates a striking contrast with the tiny Grandma, showing how big the difference the two of them need to overcome to bond a friendship they eventually have.
Things get even darker as
Grandma is forced to do unimaginable things to protect her life and the lives
of her loved ones. At the culmination of the story, Chin performs a full of
heart monologue that exposes all of her hidden feelings and emotions, revealing
her disbelief that her deceased husband left her with nothing. This is not
merely just about money. More than that, she needs closure, some kind of
compensation for being left alone in this world by her late husband. As this
scene brings us to the conclusion of the movie, her arc is complete. Even
though she remains stubborn, as she shares her cigarette with her son Howard
(Eddie Yu), we see that she is free from her remorse and ready to move on, or
rather, move in with her son’s family. Even after all the crazy adventures,
maybe she is indeed lucky after all.
Azalia Muchransyah is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Study at University at Buffalo (SUNY). She is a recipient of 2017 DIKTI-Funded Fulbright Ph.D. Scholarship. Her area of interest is advocacy media, specifically AIDS Media in Indonesia. Prior to her Fulbright award, she was the Deputy Head of Film Program at Bina Nusantara University International, Jakarta, Indonesia. Her short films have been officially selected and screened in international festivals and academic conferences. They include Halal (2017), HIV/AIDS: Not A Death Sentence (2018), Big Durian Big Apple (2018), Blue Film (2018), and Tamu (2018).