Lucky Grandma movie review: brittle old lady

part of my Directed by Women series
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Lucky Grandma green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Wild sass, gentle comedy, shivs of poignancy, and instantly vivid characters add up to a wonderful riff on mob movies as a Chinatown granny faces off against gangsters. Tsai Chin is an absolute hoot.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I first saw Lucky Grandma at London Film Festival last year, and I haven’t stopped thinking about its wild sass and its instantly vivid characters since. So I am beyond delighted that it’s getting a release that allows a wide audience to see it… ironically, probably a much wider one than it might have gotten pre-pandemic shutdown. Because now you can stream the film at home from anywhere (in the US, at least, for the moment) while also supporting brick-and-mortar arthouses. (See links below.) Win-win!

Tsai Chin (Abominable) is an absolute hoot as a chain-smoking, no-fucks-given recent widow in New York’s Chinatown. After a local fortune teller announces that a certain day will be very auspicious for her, she hops a bus to an Atlantic City casino and presses that luck, the upshot of which is that — who knew? — it turns out that bags of cash will attract the attention of some unpleasant gangster types once she gets back home.

Lucky Grandma Hsiao-Yuan Ha
Maybe Big Pong is simply rifling the candy bowl for the good ones. Or maybe he’s actually keeping a keen eye on the hair salon for signs of attack on Nai Nai…

This is such a wonderful riff on mob movies, its unlikely protagonist a vector for warm, gentle comedy in that vein, as in a burgeoning tenderness in her relationship with her new bodyguard, the charming oaf Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), hired out of a rival crime gang. Some of it is culturally specific — like how even the craziest of criminals aren’t insulting her but are being genuinely respectful when they call her “Nai Nai” (Grandma in Mandarin), even as they’re threatening her. Some of it is universal old-lady-who-has-had-it-up-to-here stuff: “I know your aunt!” is her way of intimidating an intimidator, and I think almost anyone might recognize their scolding granny in that.

Writer (with Angela Cheng) and director Sasie Sealy, making her feature debut, slips silent shivs of poignancy into the tale: Nai Nai wearing her late husband’s pajamas to bed is a sharply observed touch of everyday grief. The comedy here is leavened by the tragedy of an elderly woman desperate to retain the independence money represents, as destitution not of her own making sets in. Grandma may be badass, but maybe she’s not so lucky after all… or maybe she’ll have to find a new kind of luck elsewhere.

first viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

Lucky Grandma is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for May 22nd. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

Lucky Grandma is available to stream via Kino Marquee and Alamo on Demand, which support local arthouses during the coronavirus lockdown.

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