dir: Sasie Sealy
This movie, Lucky Grandma, is a pretty strange movie, in some very minor ways. It is strange in its relative simplicity. It might have a fair bit going on under the surface, or behind the actions of the main character, but it’s all played relatively straight. It’s mostly a very quiet film, which, with everything that’s going on at the moment, actually came as a bit of a relief while I was watching it.
The modesty of the movie’s ambitions don’t detract from its enjoyment, but neither does it make the experience an overly compelling one. It’s a hard movie to recommend, but not because it does anything wrong, or doesn’t succeed at what it tries to do.
The Grandma of the title, (Tsai Chin) is recently widowed. She is a Chinese woman living in New York’s Chinatown, which is a city within a city. She is almost exclusively referred to as Grandma, or Nai Nai, even by people who aren’t related to her. She is a tough old bird, who chainsmokes endlessly (though I have to admit, I found it amusing and worrying that they got her to smoke, when the actress clearly either doesn’t smoke now or have never been a smoker). I don’t know if the character is meant to be in her 80s, but the legendary actress playing Nai Nai certainly is, being 86.
Being an old Chinese woman, and not a wealthy one, she wastes time and money consulting a fortune teller / clairvoyant / luck consultant, who consults the I Ching, who draws out pieces of calligraphy paper and generally assures Nai Nai that her luck will soon turn around, and the 28th of October will be an especially lucky day for her.
I don’t want to appear racially insensitive, or insulting towards anyone’s culture or traditions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chinese forms of fortune telling are about as worthy or accurate as any of the other forms of fortune telling available around the world: ie. they’re all total bullshit. We’re not meant to think that there’s any reason why Nai Nai should be any luckier than anyone else on that auspicious day.
She believes it, though, and takes out of the bank the very little money she has left since her husband died. There’s a bus tour from their community to some casino 3 hours away, and she presses her luck there, convinced the universe owes her one.
Part of the delusion is believing that the number 8 is her talisman, so all her bets on all the games are on eight. And the wins start piling up, the money multiplies, and she seems vindicated. See her expression of contempt for the other players who view her behavior with incredulity and concern.
She blows smoke at their worries, mocks their judge-y expressions.
And then she loses everything. Damn you, title of small scale very niche arthouse movie, you lied to us! She’s not lucky, she is in fact…oh, I see, it was being ironic.
Dejected, depleted, defeated, she clomps on to the bus for the long trip back home, and some jerk sits next to her, stuffing his suspiciously stuffed bag in the overhead. He falls asleep and leans all over Nai Nai, much to her disgust, adding insult to injury, but then he doesn’t seem okay. As fate would have it, a fortune literally falls into Nai Nai’s lap, and everything will from now on always be better for her and her descendants for ever more.
Well, maybe not. This should come as no surprise that, to paraphrase the wise words of the immortal bard Jay-Z, more money means more problems. The recently deceased chap was an accountant. And not the kind who helps you with your tax returns. The unfortunate Mr Lin handled money for the Triads. So Nai Nai is partying with triad money.
The modesty with which she goes on a splurge once she gets the cash is almost hilarious. She buys some groceries she generally avoids because she thinks the price is too high (as in, a couple of bucks here or there), and she buys the gaudiest, chintziest light fitting that would look terrible even suspended over a fondue set atop a polar bear skin rug.
When some local triad goons come a-knocking, without knocking, by breaking in to her place, they are stock standard villains threatening her, always ask the eternal question, where’s the money, Lebowski? They are dressed…interestingly? Is that still even a word? I don’t know how contemporary actual triads in New York’s Chinatown actually dress now. I don’t know that it’s especially relevant, considering it’s not a documentary, and it’s not really a crime film either. You wouldn’t really call it a character study either, to be honest, but then I’m not sure what it is. Still, the fashions indicate to me that the filmmakers either know or believe that triads are still stuck behind the times fashion-wise by about 30 years or so.
The triads pestering Nai Nai are from the Red Dragon gang. Naturally, because this is a logical movie with a logical protagonist, instead of getting the fuck out of Dodge or Chinatown, Nai Nai instead goes to the Red Dragon’s rivals in Chinatown, being the Zhongliang, in order to get a bodyguard for herself. I don’t know why this scene is so amusing: a Chinese-American guy out the front of a rinky-dink place hawking knock-off designer stuff is amused when Nai Nai keeps asking for real, limited edition LV stuff (I’m assuming LV stands for Louis Vitton). For some reason she knows the code in order to get entry to a back room where a bunch of triad numbskulls play video games. She haggles with their low-level boss for a bodyguard. Haggling is funny. It’s a bit stereotypical to keep depicting Chinese or Chinese American people perpetually haggling over stuff; it might even be a bit too predictable, but it’s fun to watch. I guess I find it funny to watch because it has a certain dance-like quality to it, where people aim high then low ball in order to come to an acceptable, creamy middle.
In my life, in other countries I’ve never managed to do it, mostly out of self-consciousness, otherwise out of an awareness that what’s peanuts to me is a lot to them, depending on the circumstance, only to find out I’ve been ripped off while walking away, and then not being able to even find the shop where I overpaid for something terrible. I wish I could say it only happened a couple of times. I’m…I’m not good at haggling.
Nai Nai’s a master of it, though, because she has decades of experience and she’s a tough old bird. She gets the biggest bodyguard she can manage for her money, as in literally the tallest goon she could get. He’s a FOB called Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), who’s from the same region in China that she is from. He is young, and big (so his name is not ironic), but not a particularly criminally-minded chap. I don’t know if that’s pro-triad propaganda or not, but he’s certainly not meant to be scary. Bad things only happen to Nai Nai from then on when he’s not around, in the brief seconds where he goes to get tea or is distracted by something shiny. Which is often.
The plot, in so far as there is a plot, thickens only in terms of: Nai Nai has the money, Nai Nai doesn’t want to give the money back to anyone, because Nai Nai feels like life owes her a good taste, and all the threats from whatever crims don’t really sway her, because she’s lived a long and fruitful life. She has a son, she has grandkids, she likes them well enough, but doesn’t want to live with them despite being asked many times. Maybe she doesn’t want to be a burden, maybe she liked the peace and quiet she had, before all the triads wanted all the moneys.
Either way, because of how everything escalates towards to the end, in ways maybe that are meant to be comical, but seem kinda absurd and deranged, that she ends up having the kind of ending she could have agreed to 90 minutes earlier without putting so many people’s lives at risk. It’s… a bit much. I’m not saying I don’t like the old bird – the old bird is wonderful. She is a bit selfishly naïve though, and it escalates to the point where other members of her family could be killed with little justification.
When Big Pong, who ironically ends up being the good conscience she should have heeded, calls her out, she ends up giving one of those breakdown speeches where someone explains why they’re being a stubborn arsehole for the duration of the story: her husband died, leaving her alone (so, grief), but he also didn’t leave here with any money, so somehow the money belongs to her in order to make up for his deficiencies(?) I’m not sure I got it either, but it was a good scene.
It’s well delivered, she a great crotchety old actress who’s been in work since the 1950s, so she knows what she’s doing. The most important thing she does is not try to win us over. She’s not trying to be grumbly but endearing, cheeky and prone to dropping rhymes or beats at the hint of a needle scratch. She is most definitely not down with the kids, not a charming matriarch and not bothered whether we like her or not. It feels very real, very lived-in, as a depiction of a salty old dear.
In almost the very last scene, she managed to make me laugh and hide my eyes in shame, when, upon being shown a potential bedroom by her son, tastefully decorated as it is, she bellows at him in Mandarin “You can’t have an altar in the bedroom! You can’t be naked in front of the Buddha!” and then in English “It’s great disrespect!” I love that scene so, so much, not only for the embarrassment of her son, who was seconds ago talking up the feng shui of the room and all that, only to realise that he’d stuffed up big time, forgetting something so basic, but because I realised I would have enjoyed the film more had it had more scenes of her interacting with family and friends, rather than her trying to run away from triads and get involved in shootouts.
It’s still a somewhat enjoyable film, with a good grasp on the central character, but not much else. The screenplay created a strong character, but couldn’t trust in creating a world around her revealing enough of her story or qualities without relying on cheap triad bullshit to make it seem more interesting than it deserved to be. I am somewhat surprised that they didn’t make her accidentally become the boss of all the triads by story’s end, instead of a sad, lonely old woman wondering how she’s going to spend her remaining days.
Lucky Grandma is far luckier than she deserves to be.
6 times it turns out I’ve unintentionally been disrespecting the Buddha for decades out of 10
“Why do these messy things keep happening?” – why do these fires keep being lit, asks person who keeps lighting fires – Lucky Grandma