Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tribeca ’19: Lucky Grandma

Here is some local color for you: Chinatown is a major hub for casino buses. Unfortunately, that makes it easy for this rather jaded Grandma to get in trouble. Her gambling does not work out, but she still takes her opportunities where she finds them—just like her fortune teller predicted. Grandma Wong will antagonize one of the most dangerous gangs in Chinatown, but she is still in no mood to apologize or back down in Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, Grandma Wong is not all that broken up over her long-time husband’s death, but the precarious state he left their finances is deeply distressing. Encouraged by a happy-feel-good fortune reading, Grandma sets off to Foxwoods, determined to win big, which she does—before losing it all. Yet, she enjoys a reversal of fortune when the old reprobate in the seat next to her dies on the drive home, leaving a duffle bag full of cash for a quick-thinking Grandma to nonchalantly carry away.

It turns out, he was a courier for one of the local gangs, who wants their money back. Of course, this Grandma is not so easily intimidated. Instead of panicking, she heads straight to a rival gang whose protection services she hires. In a twist, they will actually live up to the term “protection,” out of pride and disgust with their horrible rivals, whom they assume just started picking on Grandma for no reason. At first, Grandma is not so thrilled to be stuck with the schlubbiest gang member as her bodyguard, but she soon takes a shine to good-natured Big Pong.

This is the sort of film that could have been absolutely insufferable, but it is actually a real kick, thanks to Tsai Chin’s bone-dry, acid-tongued performance as Grandma Wong. This is no sentimental On Golden Pond in Chinatown. This is screw-U attitude mixed with the special brand of misanthropy that comes with age. Grandma Wong is a wonderfully tart and vinegary character and it is a role that Chin totally knocks out of the park.

Chin also develops some warmly winning surrogate-grandmother-grandson chemistry with Corey Ha’s Big Pong. They play off each other nicely, while the enormous differences of physique and body language makes them amusing to watch as soon as they are brought together.

Boy, is Tsai Chin ever something else as Grandma Wong. The expression “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” could have been coined expressly for her. Yet, Sealy’s big emotional payoff is completely legit and altogether fitting. Chin earns it, along with Ha. Sealy and co-screenwriter Angela Cheng’s dialogue is razor sharp from start to finish, while Andrew Orkin’s lightly swinging score keeps the energy at a nice, jaunty level. Plus, Sealy captures the vibe of as-of-now Chinatown, in all its glory and grunge. It is all just so much better than it sounds. Highly recommended for general audiences, Lucky Grandma screens again tonight (4/30), Thursday (5/2), and Sunday (5/5), as part of this year’s Tribeca.