In contrast to the title, to be billed as a ‘Coen Brothers-esque black comedy’ feels unlucky. When you think about the premise of Lucky Grandma, the story of an elderly woman getting caught up with the Chinese mob, it’s not too dissimilar from the exploits of Fargo (or if you want to be extra bleak, No Country for Old Men). Unfortunately, despite the quirky ‘winks and nods’, the resulting film doesn’t stretch beyond that initial excitement.
If credit has to be given, then Sasie Sealy’s directed film does play with our immediate expectations. With the imagination running wild at the possibilities and directions the plot could have gone, Sealy’s directional journey is much more inward, grounded and personal. Filmed in New York, you don’t get to glimpse the classic iconography that’s usually associated with ‘The Big Apple’. Instead, it devotes its time to look at all spectrums of Asian culture not often seen through Western eyes, balancing between one-note gangsters but dedicating the time to highlight the affluence of a middle-class Chinese family.
Caught between the two worlds is Grandma Wong, a haggard, steely-eyed, chain-smoking grandma in a role delivered with perfection by actress Tsai Chin. Life hasn’t treated her well; she’s a penniless widow (thanks to her recently deceased husband who she remembers ‘fondly’ as she places a picture of a pornstar model next to his photo). Her immediate family want her to move into their home so she’s not alone (and for cost-benefit reasons). Hoping that her luck will change, she relies on her fortune teller to improve her odds of getting a just reward for her life.
But the beauty in Tsai Chin’s performance is her verbal silences. Whatever emotional parallels she evokes from a situation, she wears that lonely, dogged persona throughout with the occasional dose of sharp one-liners. And already by this point, we’re on her side and rooting for her. I mean, how could we not? The first 30 minutes roll by with engaging ease.
Co-written by Sealy and Angela Cheng, their script has fun with Wong’s ‘bad luck’, taking advantage of any scenario where an age joke can be inserted. ‘Respecting your elders’ is its top use, but where the film excels is its poignant exploration of its surreal moments that perfectly complements the stoic reactions by Tsai Chin. As an environmental juxtaposition, it’s exemplified by one brilliant scene where Wong is withdrawing all of her money from the bank and wins a healthy supply of rice (with a happy reward song to boot) just for being the 88th customer to their store.
And pretty much like a plot from a Coen Brothers movie, the trouble begins when she loses her money at the casino (forgetting that all-too famous motto of ‘the house always wins’). Through a series of fortunate events where she happens to sit next to a Chinese mobster on a bus ride home (who dies of a heart attack) and his bag full of money drops into Grandma Wong’s lap from the overhead locker, she takes it as a blessing that begins an escalating chain reaction.
Sadly, it’s at this point where the film fails to recover from its positive start. As much as it progresses in its deft art of sentimentality and redemption, like a missed opportunity, it doesn’t fully capitalise on its subject matter. Moments of comedy, mystery or tension are fleeting, often accompanied by long periods of lull as if it was unsure of its tone or the direction it wanted to pursue. It’s not helped by its rushed third act which feels like a tact on homage to gangster shootouts.
Praise must be given for its attempted approach to do something different with the genre, with a fitting argument about the value of money versus the irreplaceable wealth of family and personal relationships. It takes notable opportunities to build good-natured rapport with its characters, particularly with Grandma Wong as she befriends her giant-sized bodyguard for hire (played by the loveable Hsiao-Yuan Ha). But in the end, it’s a broad stroke commentary that runs out of steam, resulting in an underwhelming film despite Tsai Chin delivering a career best.
LUCKY GRANDMA is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.