While Lulu Wang’s emotional family drama “The Farewell” may have broken through last year, and upcoming comic book adaptations “Birds of Prey” (by Cathy Yan) and “The Eternals” (from Chloé Zhao) spell fresh opportunities for filmmakers of Chinese descent in 2020, a rollicking little follow-the-money caper called “Lucky Grandma” from first-time feature director Sasie Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng proves there are plenty more emerging Chinese American talents just waiting for their shot. All it takes is a little good fortune — and the support of a few encouraging festivals, like the Tribeca team that gave this film a boost — and they should be on their way.
Nearly as attention-grabbing (if not necessarily as consistently impressive) as an early-career Guy Ritchie lark, Sealy’s high-attitude debut stars Tsai Chin of “The Joy Luck Club” as a surly, age-toughened widow who, reluctant to accept that it’s time to move in with her son (Eddie Yu), follows her fortuneteller’s advice and takes her life savings to the casino. Kicking things off in style, Sealy introduces Grandma Wong chain-smoking on the streets of Chinatown in a punchy, smash-cut montage set to an original song (she co-wrote the lyrics) that suggests a Sino-tuned cover version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang.”
After withdrawing every cent she has from the bank, Wong begins to spot auspicious signs all around her (some more obvious than others to non-Chinese audiences), which makes the trip to Atlantic City suddenly feel like a good idea. Still, Wong’s superstition is subjective, and the universe has a strange way of rewarding her behavior. At the tables, things do not go at all as we might expect. But on the bus ride home from her rowdy gambling escapade, a satchel full of money literally falls into Granny’s lap.
She doesn’t realize it yet, but the sack and its contents belong to the Zhongliang gang, one of two competing Chinatown triads between whom Wong now finds herself caught. The next day, two goons — cartoonish thugs Pock-Mark (Woody Fu) and Little Handsome (Michael Tow) — show up at her shabby apartment and try to intimidate her. But Wong’s been around the block and knows where to look for protection, leaning on the rival Red Dragon gang (whose snakehead is a no-nonsense woman played by Yan Xi) for assistance. Except, true to her nature, Wong can’t resist haggling for the best price, winding up with a discount bodyguard.
The idea that someone like Wong would need security is amusing unto itself, but winding up with a lazy, 6’7″ giant like Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) makes the punchline that much more effective. Big Pong looks like an overgrown child tagging along with his elderly auntie on trips to the swimming pool and the hairdresser. In one pure-comedy sequence, Wong’s actual grandchild, David (Mason Yam), drops by to practice dance moves with a friend (Abigail Breslin-like child actor Arden Wolfe) while she and Big Pong try to watch soap operas in the living room. It all seems rather absurd, but Wong wasn’t wrong to hire him, and soon enough, he’s earning his fee in a series of run-ins that play almost like Three Stooges routines, with their wild swings and kid-movie fight choreography.
Although the entire film runs just 87 minutes, as “Lucky Grandma” unspools, Wong’s predicament starts to feel increasingly outlandish, making it difficult for Sealy to sustain the offbeat humor and strong momentum of the opening stretch. Repeatedly, she and editor Hye Mee Na wind us up with some high-energy sequence or other, and then just as suddenly, the caffeine fix wears off, leaving us floating listlessly through the quiet moments that follow. Composer Andrew Orkin lends things a jaunty sensibility, but it becomes clear with time that the movie is leaning too heavily on its score. (Incidentally, the fact that much of the film is subtitled, while characters speak Cantonese and Mandarin, doesn’t pose much of an obstacle and feels true to the milieu.)
Doubling as producer, Chin is plainly the film’s greatest asset, a terrific actor with great comic timing and a tendency to underplay her character’s reactions, which helps to offset the relatively broad performances that surround her. This is one of those delicious cast-against-type late-career roles, like Shirley MacLaine in “Bernie” or French New Wave icon Bernadette Lafont as pot-dealing granny “Paulette,” that supplies more than enough entertainment to carry the entire film. The project’s likely to earn Sealy (who’s done her share of commercials, in addition to directing episodes of “Fresh off the Boat” and “The Kicks”) some serious cred, and with any luck, it should bring some overdue attention to its criminally underused leading lady as well.