'Lucky Grandma' Review: Tsai Chin's 80-year-old grumpy gran tackles gang wars like a pro, one smoke at a time
Sasie Sealy's debut feature stands out not only because of its quirky background score but also for reinventing Chin for the big screen
Spoilers for 'Lucky Grandma'
Some might remember her as the first Chinese Bond girl frolicking in bed with Sean Connery in 'You Only Live Twice'. Others might remember her from her iconic cameo next to Daniel Craig in 'Casino Royale'. For 2020 however, the incredible Tsai Chin will be a grumpy chainsmoking grandma whose fight to reclaim her dignity saw her pulling a bombshell heist and sparking Chinatown gang wars. The Grumpy Cat died (RIP) and was reborn as Grandma Wong — lovingly called Nai-Nai by everybody around her; including her giant lump of a bodyguard who acts more like a grandson than her security.
Somewhat dark, witty enough to be funny, and heartbreaking moments that leave you sobbing for Nai-Nai — writer and director Sasie Sealy's debut feature stands out not only because of its quirky background score but also for reinventing Chin for the big screen in an avatar she thrives in.
Nai-Nai is 80-something and recently widowed; she finds out her husband died leaving her a destitute, but firmly refuses to move in with her son and his extraordinarily happy family of wife and two kids. Barely making ends meet, Nai-Nai spends her days sometimes babysitting her grandson, and most of the time sneering at people. With a cigarette slinging off her lips at all times, Nai-Nai's only respite seems to be the regular casino trips she indulges in with fellow Chinatown residents. Picking up on the title, grandma gets lucky the first time itself and her winning streak makes you clap and cheer for the tiny old lady living her best life; that is until the whole night's buzz is ruined by the final card she plays and she loses everything she earned.
The twists don't take time to hop on either; as luck would have it, Nai-nai's return trip back home becomes more eventful when the passenger seated next to her dies and his giant bag filled with cash drops on Nai-Nai's lap. One would think this is her origin story — rise to become a crimelord reigning in gold and bills, but not quite. Finding that bag of money solves more problems than one for Nai-Nai, but also puts her as the pivotal core of Chinatown gang wars as the dead man she stole from turned out to be an accountant for one of those gangs.
What starts off as Nai-Nai just being stubborn about keeping the money, soon turns into her becoming a target to these gangs ambushing her in her own house, and even appointing a bodyguard from the rival gang, Big Pong — a performance by Hsiao-Yuan Ha that will win you over. You can watch the trailer here.
Nai-Nai's tribulations put her in the middle of street fights and bullet showers, when not being hounded by these people around town. It is only when the bad guys kidnap her grandson and demand the money for ransom that a bleeding Nai-Nai finally breaks down from her cold and composed demeanor. We have seen Nai-Nai judging people in silence, and even tease Big Pong with that wild spark within when she asks him if he's ever been with a woman.
When Nai-Nai breaks down, she is raw and desperate — she needs the money, but giving up would mean losing her dignified independence. The question however lingers: Is sacrificing her grandson worth her own ego? Clearly not, and off she goes to save her baby boy in a classic warehouse gunfight scene, and everything turns out hunky-dory, reminding us once again why grandmas aren't to be messed with.
In all of this, what strikes the most is the animated background score that picks up and dims a little too abruptly and alarmingly, but never enough to seem odd or a misfit. Sealy's writing sandpapers the jagged edges of Nai-Nai's life soaring and dipping all too suddenly to keep a track of. This comes with equal proportions of humor in every scene where one of the bad guys tries to ambush Nai-Nai and she effortlessly takes them down while being half their speed.
That or Nai-Nai's family assuming her bodyguard is her boyfriend — thus making for extremely awkward family dinners. But in all of this, it is Chin who shines through as a dry, wild, unapologetic elderly woman who just wants to be independent. In the end, even as she finally moves back in with her son, resentment transforms into acceptance and not in grapes are sour way. It's sweet, wholesome, and feels exactly how leaving grandma's house after a hearty meal does.
'Lucky Grandma' initially premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November 2019. It will be available for streaming from Friday, May 22, through Bay Area virtual cinemas via the Vogue and Balboa theaters.