Lucky Grandma Review
Sasie Sealey's Lucky Grandma went into production off the back of winning AT&T’s $1m Untold Stories screenplay contest, giving the writer-director an opportunity to show her respect for Chinese mothers, grandmas and aunties. Co-written with Angela Cheng, it takes place in and around New York’s Chinatown, positioning an 80-year-old widow as the hero of the story, a woman who isn’t ready to roll over and die and fade into the past just yet. She’s a big character in a small world and that sort of Coen-esque trope is almost enough to see Sealey’s debut through its brief 85 minute story.
Almost being the operative word, as there are moments when Lucky Grandma threatens to burst through its sedate atmosphere – but the script isn’t able to deliver on its promise. It opens on Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) being told by a fortune teller that her luck is about to come in. Before you can say “Blackjack!” she has withdrawn her life savings and is at the casino stacking up a tower of chips. She soon attracts the attention of some local gangsters and decides to hire giant bodyguard Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) from a rival gang, pitting herself bang in the middle of a local gang war.
As you can imagine, chaos and comedy follows, although outside of Grandma’s budding friendship with Pong, not much of it lands. The two make a compelling oddball couple – she the deadpan grandma who refuses to suffer fools, he the child in a giant’s body who can throw his weight around but seems a little lost. There are some wry riffs on how misplaced belief in (unqualified) local guru doctors and cultural mysticism can be manipulated, and the cartoonish gangsters chasing her down raise a few chuckles, but it often feels like the film isn’t to sustain those small sparks of energy.
Little is known about Grandma’s backstory until much later on, and by the time it is awkwardly crammed into a clumsy final act, it bears little or no significance at all. Which is a shame as Chin (also serving as producer) offers a character that is easy enough to believe in and her stoic presence in almost every shot teases us to discover what is really driving her stubbornness. Yet too often the film feels listless and unable to make the most of the cast at its disposal, with the short run time often feeling much longer than it should.
Sealey’s background in directing TV adverts helps to give her debut some nice visual touches although that can only do so much to distract from the flagging pace. Mixing themes of old age, family support, independence, loneliness and more into a pot already more than half full with a crime caper doesn’t allow room for much of it to breathe, and that lack of oxygen is what eventually kills all interest in what happens to Grandma Wong come the end.
Lucky Grandma is available on VOD from May 22.