“Fate has cheated you,” a Chinese fortune teller says to Grandma Wong (played by the veteran actress Tsai Chin) in the opening scene of Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma. “You are without shade in your old age.” It’s hard to tell what exactly Wong, sitting in the dark, cigarette in hand, eyes fixed on the other woman, thinks of this pronouncement: Her expression throughout the movie is a tough, often unreadable glower, and the emotions we find in it might say more about us than they do about her. But we can see the gears of her mind begin to turn when she’s told that October 28 will be her lucky day, and a truly auspicious one at that. “Your reward is coming,” the fortune teller says.
Grandma Wong could use some luck. Her dead husband left her with nothing, she lives in a grim little Chinatown apartment, and her upper-middle-class son and his family would like her to move in with them — a proposition the crotchety, cynical Wong seems downright depressed by.
Then she heads off to Atlantic City on a Chinatown bus, and her luck starts to change. She hits a surreal winning streak at the roulette tables, racking up thousands of dollars in gains, then advances through a night of even more ridiculous jackpots. But one late hand of poker — presumably after the stroke of midnight — clears Grandma Wong out. Heading back on the bus late that night, now penniless, she notices that the elderly gentleman beside her with a serpent tattooed on his neck has died in his sleep. Then, a sudden lurch of the vehicle, and the dead man’s bag, bursting with wads of cash, lands in grandma’s lap.
Soon enough, a couple of hapless but still threatening emissaries from the local Red Dragon gang show up in her apartment, asking pointed questions. When she realizes that they’re continuing to follow her, the indefatigable Grandma Wong goes to their rivals, the Zhongliang gang, to ask for protection. After some heated negotiations, she walks off with a discount bodyguard — the oak-like Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), a kindly young hulk whose main passion in life seems to be the health-care app he hopes to launch when he returns to China.
Is this … a comedy? A thriller? A heartwarming drama about an eccentric old lady? A gangster picture? Lucky Grandma has elements of all of these genres. Throughout, Sealy balances genuine danger with poker-faced playfulness; the fights are goofy, even when they end in someone getting accidentally brained. That sort of thing — not-so-serious fighting that ends in quite-serious fatalities — is not easy to pull off, but the director’s tonal control impresses. There’s a throwback quality to the movie’s atmosphere. It reminded me of the deadpan indie comedies of the 1980s and’$2 90s, of films by the likes of Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman. Those pictures got away with a lot of narrative silliness, because the world around the characters felt so authentic and fascinating that you just went with the often-unlikely stories. Here, too, Sealy demonstrates a flair for offhand details, and the Chinatown of this curious, loopy little film is both lived-in and intriguing.
But what ultimately makes it all work so well is Tsai Chin’s endearingly gruff performance. The actress is probably best known stateside for her scene-stealing turn as Auntie Lindo in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, but she’s had an absurdly distinguished career on at least three continents. Grandma Wong’s over-it-all demeanor becomes a kind of feature-length Rorschach test for everyone else, as well as for us. When the not-so-great guys (they don’t quite feel like “bad guys”) look at her, they see a duplicitous old harpy who’s trying to slip one past them, while the not-so-bad guys (they don’t quite feel like “good guys”) see a beleaguered grandma in need of help; who cares if the real truth lies somewhere in between? Actress and director build a symphony out of Grandma Wong’s grimaces and her glares. There are emotions in there, but she’s not about to let us get to them, and to her, that easily. And so, we are transfixed.
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