Writer: Angela Cheng, Sasie Sealy
Director: Sasie Sealy
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The gangster movie feels as though it has been played-out from every angle, but cinema remains in love with the mobsters and crime groups that lurk beneath the surface of major cities. Yet the hopeless victim outwitting the violent gangs is a rarely seen trope these days which makes Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng’s Chinese-American spin on the old formula so entertaining, as obstreperous Grandma Wong tries to outwit two rival New York gangs.
Left with nothing after the death of her husband, the chain-smoking and scowling Grandma Wong is determined to manage by herself, despite an invitation to move in with her son and his family. When a prophecy suggests luck is on the way, a Casino trip proves fateful as Grandma Wong unexpectedly finds herself between rival gangs looking for stolen money. With her life in danger, Grandma Wong is certain that good fortune is on her side.
In a year where the representation of female filmmakers at the London Film Festival has reached 40%, the female perspective on offer in Lucky Grandma adds a new twist to the genre. Both the wily protagonist and powerful mob-boss are female as well as the writer and director, but it’s also satisfying to see meaty stories being written about older characters who not only have plenty of agency but, as with we see with Grandma Wong, also move away from the cuddly grandparent image so prevalent in modern cinema.
Sealy carries this 85-minute film through several different tones, mixing the bombast of very male films like Ocean’s Eleven as Grandma Wong stylishly plays the roulette wheel and card games at the Casino, amassing her winnings with a Bogart-like cool, with the film’s later subversion as it tempers its comic scenario with grittier exposes of casual violence between the China Town gangs, and the ultimate naivety of its leading lady. Lucky Grandma manages to be wryly entertaining without distracting from the brutality Grandma Wong’s experience, but it’s never gratuitous in its portrayal of violence, with much implied or happening just out of shot.
Tsai Chin is terrific as Grandma Wong, a central performance that encompasses many facets; the disdain she displays for the world around her is very funny as Grandma Wong shamelessly pushes people aside and fronts-up to local gangsters demanding their protection in a cut-rate deal. But underneath Chin suggest a true love for her family and how deeply her husband’s death has affected Grandma Wong, the sense of abandonment it gives rise to driving these poor and entitled behaviours which creates considerable pathos even when she’s misbehaving.
The surrounding cast include Hsiao-Yuan Ha as Big Pong, the gentle giant bodyguard assigned to protect her and the two develop a sweet domestic relationship as they watch Chinese films together, but Ha also suggests the betrayal he feels when the truth is finally revealed. Yan Xi has a small but vital role as Sister Fong the stylish gang boss who adds a touch of the fantastical appearing through the smoke and controlling events from afar.
Lucky Grandma is really a film about learning to appreciate the things that are in front of you rather than chasing exuberant windfalls or changeable fate, but Sealy grounds it in the messy reality of New York with cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén suggesting the everyday grime and loneliness of the modern working class city. It may involve an over-hasty conclusion, but with a gloriously entertaining central performance, Lucky Grandma is a gangster film with a difference.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October