Since she is widowed, you can say that the New York-based Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) is black in love. However, her life is set to be red — much, much redder — if the fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho) she is meeting is correct about a future with “carps jumping over dragon gate” on October 28. The day comes. Grandma Wong boards an all-senior bus to Foxwoods Resort Casino. Things come true.
This would be a good place to end Lucky Grandma had it been a short, with Andrew Orkin’s celebratory drums-and-trumpets score embedding what’s been seen into the mind — say, a definitively Eastern and Southeastern Asian way to request fortunes from sacred figures. But, as it turns out, this is just the beginning of a feature, the inciting incident of an endearing, lively and occasionally thoughtful “more money, more problems” journey from writer-director Sasie Sealy. Lucky us!
Here’s the thing about Grandma Wong’s newfound riches: They come with armed, gang-related strings. They’re not from the casino, either; on her way back from Foxwoods, a visibly dragon-tattooed passenger next to her dies and leaves behind a loaded duffel bag that she then claims. Although that act will push Grandma Wong toward scenarios no Nai Nai should find herself in — being hunted by hitmen, walking around with a bodyguard and dodging bullets — she stays blazing, and that’s a testament to the scripting’s laser-like focus on its central character (from Sealy and Angela Cheng) as well as Chin’s acting.
There should be zero doubt at the screen veteran’s ability to become the scene’s epicentre, even if Grandma Wong doesn’t deviate from a stern visage that often or (more importantly) how she would often be the smallest person in a room. But, my goodness, the excess of electricity that Chin embeds into Grandma Wong’s stare and walk — it ultimately makes her an unassuming dagger that her threats will have a hard time eliminating and that everybody else should direct some appreciation toward. That, together with recurring visuals of a burning cigarette and the company of the colossal-yet-tender protector Big Pong (Corey Ha), and what we have here is someone who can prompt your favourite godfather to head for the hills.
Not as potent, although its inclusion rounds things out, is the emotional component in Lucky Grandma, visible in Sealy’s depictions of Grandma Wong as the outsider of her (more well-off) family and as the one creating friction when an ally is close by (like her nephew David (Mason Yam) or Big Pong). After all, the protagonist’s search for quick wealth, and the struggle to keep it, is especially relatable in this economy.
And if you have read this exclusive report on NYC seniors visiting casinos to pay bills more than to have fun, you’d come across an unshakable kind of melancholy while watching the story unfold. There is merit in saying that Sealy is more energised when she gets to guide Grandma Wong through extraordinary situations — the most memorable one among them is an extended-take street shootout where Eduardo Enrique Mayén’s camera never leaves her side — but in retrospect it’s a penny-sized fault. How so? Well, why be hung up on it and forget that everything else is an outsized trove of fun to interact with, featuring the lively guidance from Tsai Chin?
If you’re planning to create a list of “Best Feature Film Debuts in 2020,” Lucky Grandma should have a spot in it. May you have even more luck in life if it stands besides Relic by Natalie Erika James and Birds of Prey from Cathy Yan!