‘When you get to my age, nothing shocks you’ utters widowed 80-year-old Grandma Wong played by the veteran actress, Tsai Chin. But the seemingly endless misadventures of the elderly widow in New York City’s Chinatown does just that. The feature debut from award-winning director Sasie Sealy wastes no time in introducing the film’s whimsical narrative. The film opens with tarot reading cards and chain-smoking Grandma Wong deciphering every detail about her ‘lucky day’ from a local fortune-teller.
When the foretold lucky day arrived, October 28th for Grandma Wong, we see an elderly woman very much ready to risk it all. She takes out all her life’s savings and takes a trip to the casino aboard the fabled Chinatown bus line. Following her fortune teller’s advice, she plays her luck and bets on ‘8’ on the roulette table and, as predicted, she wins every time. The sequence showing Grandma Wong betting on 8 and winning numerously is outrageous and absurd in all the best ways. But eventually, her luck was bound to end. After the euphoria of her seemingly unstoppable streak, the lucky number isn’t 8. Grandma loses all of her savings — not the best outcome when you’re a grandmother trying to prove to your son that you are still capable of living independently.
But alas, luck somehow lands back in her hands. Quite literally. The huge earnings of a now-deceased elderly man fall from the heavens (the overhead container on the bus) and, after musing the situation, Grandma Wong eventually decides to keep the money for herself. As she brings the bag full of money back to her apartment, she also brings along a farcical succession of unlucky events which begins with two ‘Red Dragon’ gangsters breaking into her home and protesting she gives them ‘their money’ back, threatening that they will hurt her if she doesn’t — one of the gangsters, nicknamed ‘Little Handsome’, unflinchingly cuts his own tongue in front of Grandma to prove they are the real deal.
Bewildered by the events, the elderly woman takes matters into her own hands and hires a security guard from a rival gang, she gains access to their services by repeatedly asking a local designer bag vendor for ‘LV’, a code name of sorts. Here she haggles her way into hiring Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha). While intimidating in size, he is your typical friendly giant. The two develop such a pure and comical dynamic as they manoeuvre around Grandma’s usual daily routines. She continues doing Tai chai, playing Mahjong, and going to the salon, this time just minding the suited thugs following them. Inevitably, it is in these chaotic chases and face-offs that we really see the screwball aspect of the film, Tsai Chin and Hsiao-Yuan Ha flaunt their knack for comedic timing. It is also in these moments wherein the film firms itself in the dark comedy genre, rightfully being billed as ‘Coen Brothers-esque’.
The oddity of the film’s story fits perfectly within the busy streets of New York City. Sealy fully utilises the city in her storytelling, especially during Grandma Wong’s direct clashes with the gangs; making the city a vital character of its own. But most importantly, the film is a bold and affectionate love letter to the city’s Chinatown.
Their numerous encounters eventually build up to Grandma Wong’s own family being entangled with the Red Dragon. Her family’s involvement with the chaos becomes the last straw. While your own Grandma may not be getting herself intertwined with the Mafia anytime soon — that you know of anyway — it’s impossible not see female figures in our own lives within the heart of the character. Like most family matriarchs, Grandma Wong is resilient, witty, and independent. At its core, her decision to take the money was fuelled by her desire to continue living separately from her son, not wanting to, presumably, become another responsibility for her son who is building his life with his wife and kids; the intricacies of immigrant parents and their relationship with their second-generation kids.
Sealy, and co-writer Angela Cheng, reinvent the immigrant story; diminishing the emotional and heart-wrenching tropes we have grown accustomed to associating with such narrative themes. Rather, they have crafted a film which reinvigorates the theme with so much life, redefining the roles elderly actors — more specifically Asian women — get to play along the way.
Lucky Grandma screens at LFF on the 4th, 6th, 10th and 13th October
by Graciela Mae
Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself. She swears she has other hobbies. Her favourite movies include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae