The bustling streets of New York are home to millions who embrace the close-knit neighborhoods and the unknowingly united people all around them. On any normal day, a single person could roam the streets and neighborhoods they’ve known for years and see thousands of people who are nothing but stereotypes to them: the white-collar business man, the rich fashion school student, the equally cute and cold-faced grandmother, the hard-working creative just trying to make an honest living, etc. But could this single passerby have predicted that the seemingly-harmless grandmother they encountered for a moment in Chinatown is actually a con-woman on the wrong side of fate after stealing thousands of dollars from the Chinese mafia? This seemingly outrageous question and its implications on identity and assumption is exactly what’s at the core Sasie Sealy’s assured directorial debut, Lucky Grandma, which is arguably the new standard for modern heist films. It stars former Bond girl Tsai Chin (from You Only Live Twice) as the aforementioned sneaky grandmother and for the duration of the film, Chin knows exactly who her character (Grandma Wong) is as a character and she understands firsthand how the world perceives her, so she decides: why not run with these predetermined expectations under the guise of guaranteed fortune and pure luck?
As a result of being left with no financial security from her longtime (and recently deceased) husband and countless years of hard work, Grandma Wong chain-smokes her days away in her tiny Chinatown apartment, constantly looking for bargains and refusing to give up her own independent life to live in her son’s accommodating household. When she isn’t begrudgingly brought over to her son’s house for family gatherings, she frequents her favorite curb-side markets scouring for deals and sometimes treats herself to the occasional 3-hour charter bus trek to her favorite casino. Not long after receiving news of incoming fortune from a trusted fortune teller, Grandma Wong takes a routine casino trip, where she rakes in the chips and blows them all away within the span of a short few hours. On the grueling bus ride back, however, is when she finally finds the fortune she was long promised, after the man sitting next to her silently passes away and his cash-strapped duffel bag perfectly lands in her lap. Taking this as a surefire sign of fortune, Grandma Wong pays her respects to the dead, takes the duffel bag, and never looks back, until a gang in the Chinese mafia, called the Red Dragon, tracks her down to claim what’s arguably theirs.
This wacky chain of events, while undeniably comedic in nature, assures that Grandma Wong is definitely no ordinary grandma and also bring up important thoughts and dilemmas on wealth and morals: is that money truly her repayment for her years of under-valued labor? Does taking money from the takers make one a better person? As the film progresses, moments of comedic mishaps surrounding the stolen money and the lengths Grandma Wong will go to protect her fortune morph into those of genuine sadness and distress, as she is caught between losing loved ones to her inherited wealth or giving up her long-awaited fortune and her last shot at solidarity. In a moment where two members of the Red Dragon break into Grandma Wong’s apartment, she barely makes it out of this mishap by knocking one unconscious and accidentally killing the other with the help of her hunky, second-rate bodyguard Big Pong (Corey Ha). Grandma takes full initiative: taping garbage bags together and rolling the body onto this makeshift latex coffin to dispose, while Pong stands idly until his services are needed to simply and calmly carry the corpse to the dumpster. It’s off-kilter, yet oddly heartfelt, moments like these that are wholly a result of Sealy’s extensive background in sketch comedy. Her knack for being able to blend pure outrageousness with a healthy dose of realism and introspection leaves the viewer to decide for themselves what the morals of the situation are.
In Lucky Grandma, Grandma Wong is one of the most ambiguous characters in this year of film, given her objectionable moral code and jaded outlook on life that’s fueled by the absence of love and prosperity (financial and otherwise) left for her upon her husband’s death. The mild existentialism that’s painted on Grandma’s face in every scene is so tangible; it’s constantly comparing the importance of love to wealth, wealth to love, and pondering if these two apparent staples are one in the same. Despite the chuckles that the film inevitably draws out of the viewer, Grandma would still be one of the most unlikable characters of this year if it weren’t for Sealy’s empathetic lens guiding every step of the way. She clearly cares about each one of her characters and provides a nuance that is rarely seen in a comedy film of this nature, making Grandma’s incredibly questionable journey surprisingly redeemable. Chin masterfully and subliminally encapsulates Grandma’s natural, stubborn “ox” disposition and how it reacts to the drastic shift in emotion that comes with her ever-changing situations. Her appearance as the titular “lucky grandma” perfectly chronicles the ups and downs of fortune and aging, and adds dimensions to her demographic that are seldom seen in modern pieces of media.
Throughout this heartfelt and stressful romp, every moment of witty dialogue and every emotionally-complex moral quandary in the film is accompanied by a fitting piece in Andrew Orkin’s sleek score. Every piece is wonderfully tongue-and-cheek for the current situation at hand, as it accentuates the ridiculousness of Grandma Wong knowing the aunt of one of her Red Dragon attackers and emphasizes the isolation and anxiety of her family, friends, and fortune getting swept away in a matter of seconds. However, none of this film’s original coolness could have even come to fruition without Sealy’s screenplay and impeccable comedic timing. It’s moments like petite Grandma Wong hiding in a gym locker to avoid capture from her Red Dragon pursuers, or Grandma Wong’s frugal nature taking over her every action (even when she’s purchasing a bodyguard) that solidify Sealy’s surefire ability to add refreshing moments of actual comedy with innovative punchlines, all while subverting the stereotypes of character comedy to her own (and Grandma Wong’s) will.
Lucky Grandma is the refreshing, age-inclusive heist film that no one knew was needed, but was ultimately deserved. Grandma Wong is one of the coolest and most complex lead characters in any heist film in recent years, and Chin plays her with an understated swagger that immediately gets any viewer hooked to all of her chain-smoking antics. Also, with the help of Sealy’s fun and fresh screenplay that has generous amounts of dark comedy, this film boldly jabs at themes of identity and wealth, as well as other facets of the human condition. Basically, not only is Lucky Grandma one of the most original independent films of 2020, it is also probably the biggest (and only) reminder you’ll receive all year to respect every one of your elders.