'Lucky Grandma' Review: An Electrifying Tsai Chin Deals A Cool Hand In This Sharp, Screwy Black Comedy [Tribeca]

Too often in cinematic history, Chinatown has acted as some exotic backdrop or dangerous enemy territory through which our (usually white) protagonist must venture in order to reach their goal. But in Lucky Grandma, this New York City neighborhood feels like home. A grimy, at-times hostile home. But a living, breathing home that is the irreplaceable setting for director and co-writer Sasie Sealy's outrageously funny, unquestionably cool black comedy about a chain-smoking grandma who finds herself in the middle of a Chinatown gang war.

Played by an electric Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club), the titular lucky Grandma Wong runs into nothing but bad luck throughout the film, despite the assurances of her fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho) that she'll be blessed with incredible fortune. Recently widowed and left with no money from her late husband, Grandma Wong feels at odds with her Americanized son and his family, who offer to take her into their shiny Brooklyn home. But Grandma Wong loves her cramped Chinatown apartment and its unfriendly neighbors. She shuffles up and down its unforgivingly steep steps every day, she practices tai chi at the local swimming pool, she buys discounted groceries at the local Chinese grocer. But most importantly, she takes trips to the nearby casino with a group of fellow elderly Chinese folks, where she gambles and runs into that lucky streak that her fortuneteller had foretold. Until she doesn't.

When Grandma Wong loses all her money in a risky game of poker, she rides home in the elderly folks bus, dejected, until a bag of money literally falls in her lap. Realizing that it belongs to the mobster who had sat next to her and quietly died from a heart attack, Grandma Wong takes it as a sign that her lucky streak had returned. But it's only the beginning of her troubles, which results in Grandma Wong getting dragged into a feud between two rival Chinatown gangs.

Chin is a tsunami of charisma in this role, radiating coolness and looking for all the world like she's lived hard and played harder. Though Grandma Wong's cantankerous nature requires Chin to wear a scowl on her face for much of the movie, it's remarkable the range of emotions that can flit across her face in a span of a minute — from sparkling mischief, to somber defeat, to iron-willed resolve. She's one of the richest elderly characters to have ever graced our screens, and Chin seems to delight in playing a character so difficult and complicated. Grandma Wong is both completely recognizable in our aunties and grandmothers, and at the same time, not at all — she is so incredibly heightened that it feels like she was written to be an icon.

But those larger-than-life qualities match the playful screwball tone that Sealy infuses Lucky Grandma with. In her feature debut, Sealy shows off a remarkably assured directorial flair, playing with the visual language of neo-noir films, black comedies, and even a sprinkle of '70s exploitation movies. Sealy shows a zeal for the crime genres that she's paying homage to, and it shows in the film's driving vibrant kineticism that would make Edgar Wright blush. Sealy delights in taking mundane Chinatown settings — a sauna, a dollar store, a pool locker room — and giving them a sinister edge with shows of casual violence that verge on hyperviolence. The image of triad boss Sister Fong (Yan Xi) threatening Grandma Wong in a sauna is one that is crafted with the purpose of becoming indelible.

Lucky Grandma doesn't pretend to be grounded in any way. Though Grandma Wong displays moments of vulnerability, especially with her favorite grandson David (Mason Yam) and with her hapless hired bodyguard Big Pong (Corey Ha), not much comes of those shows of sensitivity. Supporting characters have their scene-stealing moments — especially the sweetly sensitive Big Pong, whose adoring dynamic with Grandma Wong is a refreshing change of pace from the movie's stylish displays of violence — but they remain largely undeveloped outside of their interactions with Grandma Wong. But that is easily forgiven, because that's not the kind of movie that Lucky Grandma is trying to be.

With great bombast and fanfare, Lucky Grandma is introducing a new kind of crime genre movie, one where an elderly Chinese woman dares to be fearless, dares to be unlikable, and dares to be the hero. Sexy though Sealy's direction is, Lucky Grandma feels inspired because of its lack of orientalism that is so prevalent in other Western noirs that pay lip service to Chinatown culture but are never completely embedded in it. Though the flavors of past genres are present in Lucky Grandma, all those ingredients add up to a truly unique, unforgettable dish that brings a familiar formula to a whole new level. Just by nature of the premise — a grandma stumbles into a neo-noir where she becomes the target of rival Chinatown gangs! — Lucky Grandma is one of a kind.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10