Lucky Grandma is a movie we have seen before but we have never seen it like this. Tsai Chin expertly plays a Chinese grandma embroiled in what has all the earmarks of a Coen Brothers caper. She is now facing old age and the potential of having to move in with her family, a final surrender of independence from the former life she once knew with her late husband, who left her nothing to survive on. One more trip to the casino and she’ll make a small living on the tables. She doesn’t and retires back to the bus, where a passenger next to her dies on the ride home, leaving a golden opportunity to nab his stuffed bag of money, demarcated by its association to local gangs. The granny finds herself in big trouble, in little China, and obtains the security protection of kindhearted giant Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha).
Sure, we’ve been here before. Every story feels as though it’s been told. It’s the way a story is remixed and brought new ideas that truly counts. Remarkably, this is the debut of director Sasie Sealy. The director ensures sensitivity and development space for all her characters. She lets Grandma, as she’s affectionately named throughout the movie, exist in every shot of the picture. Her one-word name broadens the scope of the usual Grandma picture. Now she is the hero, the action star that holds the movement of every frame with the suspense of her next action.
Grandma may go down as one of the year’s great character inventions. Ornery and chain-smoking, she has a crass exterior, a rugged individualism. It’s so rare a depiction, and the film has so much fun with the off-kilter performance that we want to believe in it; we want to spend time in Grandma’s slice of New York and feel the complete texture of her living space. Her relationship with Big Pong is always fascinating and abruptly entertaining. They make such a fun pair: the tough, stout Grandma and her big old softie hitman, a cinematic odd couple. When the film relaxes its pacing and the two discuss relationships and watch traditional Chinese movies on Grandma’s well-worn couch, the film’s heart beats out of its chest.
Sealy does a fine job of moving the plot right along. It is structured exactly like a Coens picture. There is a great feeling about the whole project. Once Grandma really gets in the thick of it with rivaling local gangs and head crime-world honcho Sister Yang (Yan Xi), it escalates the tension beautifully. Through using empowered women characters naturally, Sealy finds new context to share the same old story.
Grandma finds her luck in many different forms. It’s not always the tarot-reading kind of projected luck she initially engages in, nor that of her good fortune at the casino. The found money is not the start of her riches. She finds it in the family that she tried so hard to escape. Sometimes, we’re lucky for reasons that have been around us for so long that we no longer see what they are. Upon her debut, Sealy convinces us as a director to watch, capable of grounding action and drama onto any moment. The combined effort between the director and Grandma makes an old story new again.