With modern day Brooklyn mafia, often comes a little comedy in cinema. Sasie Sealy’s first-time feature is as charming as it is eccentric.
Leading veteran actress Tsai Chin provides an unconventional look into a snappy and sharp chain smoking elder. Grandma Wong (Chin) is living in a dark and unwelcoming flat in New York city after the death of her husband who has left her with a lot less than she anticipated. Upon withdrawing all her savings, she proceeds to join a Chinese tour bus to a casino and gambles away the lot. As ‘luck’ would have it, she sits next to a member of a notorious Chinese street gang. Understanding he has died beside her; she swipes his bag full of cash and goes on a spree. Only to come home to two members of the same gang wanting it back.
What Lucky Grandmas does so well, is to establish a character in an isolated setting. Grandma Wong is a snappy woman who cherishes her independence. With the realisation that she is now being hunted by a Chinese mob gang, she hires a local bodyguard, the gentle giant Big Pong (Corey Ha). This unlikely duo is quite the team together. Sealy has clearly had a fun time here merging modern day America with the traditional old values of Chinese culture. In fact, without the addition of Grandma Wong’s first-generation American Son (Eddie Yu) and his family in Brooklyn, the setting could have easily passed for China. This addition was cleaver and thoughtful. Chinese neighbourhoods around the world are almost a sanctuary away from home, New York Metropolitan districts as of 2017 had an estimated 893,697 Chinese citizens. With a core arriving in the early 1990’s, New York furthered their presence by promoting mandarin and Cantonese speakers and symbols on transport routes and public resources. The distinct usage of primary Chinese shops and neighbourhoods in Lucky Grandma is a refreshing and dedicated example of cultural passionate film-making.
Tsai Chin is no stranger to feature films, having previously appeared in Casino Royale (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and You Only Live Twice (1967). In 2019 it is not easy to find any leading roles for women over fifty. At eighty two years young, she is proving that wrong. Her performance in Lucky Grandma is without fault, at the correct times she is judgemental, stubborn and shady to allow the audience a downright giggle. Yet, she still allows the viewer to be cautious and unforgiving when her twelve-year-old grandson gets caught in her bad decisions.
The decision to pair Grandma Wong and Big Pong together was mainly drawn in for comedic effect, however, it added a little bit more than that. It showed that despite the sixty-year age gap, two people can connect to one another. Big Pong and Grandma Wong are as they realise, both from the same area back in China. This adds a connection that only a handful of members of the audience will understand.
This brings me to Chinese cinema. The cultural revolution occurred between 1966 to 1976. Inflicted by Mao Zedong, it was a repressive state that dismissed cinema. Chinese cinema took a hit in these years, propaganda was the main outlet for filmmakers, should they choose to make it. In the years that followed the collapse to the cultural revolution, filmmaking flourished, until the 1980s when numbers dipped. In January 1986, the film industry was transferred to the ministry of culture, this move didn’t allow the freedom that was respected in cinema. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that filmmakers took the industry back and began to grow the art into a distinction of its own. Currently, the Chinese film industry is expected to be at 60.97 billion Yeon ($9.09 billion dollars) annually.
This is all important. Not only in terms of understanding the current effect of Chinese cinema, but to respect that Tsai Chin was the fist actor to be invited to lecture in Chinese universities and educational systems after the Cultural Revolution. Both of her parents were also killed as a result of the Revolution, for being performers.
Lucky Grandma is more than a dark comedy about the underground mob scene of Chinese New York. It is a refreshing approach to see an older Asian actress take the screen, and make us both laugh and wince.