Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lucky Grandma

I'm not sure how much longer folks will be able to do this and Thousand Pieces of Gold as a double feature via the Brattle's virtual screening room, but I suspect they pair well, with different tones and periods but two intriguing women sometimes wrestling with the idea of being Chinese-American.

(Plus, both Rosalind Chao and Tsai Chin were in The Joy Luck Club, but I suspect that can apply to nearly every well-known Chinese-American actress from that period.)

It's a nifty one, and while it's cool that funds from rentals are going both to theaters and Chinatown-based funds, I'm once again disappointed that I'm seeing it this way, since I'd kind of love to be in an audience with a bunch of Chinese-American people just to hear which jokes land well that I don't recognize. Heck, having seen just how much of the stuff I found when doing an Amazon search for Tsai Chin was music, I now really want to know if she was ever on the soundtrack semi-ironically.

Lucky Grandma

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, KinoNow via Roku)

It's not a trick that works every time, or even the thought process that most filmmakers are using, but you'll probably get something interesting by taking a story that has been done a lot and then adding twenty years or so to the main character's age. Sure, it may seem like suicide commercially, but you'll wind up with a terrific character actor in the lead, new challenges and solutions in the story, and the chance for nifty juxtapositions. It makes for one of the more intriguing bag-of-money movies to come out in a while.

It starts with Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) getting a reading from her fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho), who says she will have a "10-year-luck pillar" on the 28th of October. One might worry that her winning a few bags of rice as a prize for being the 88th customer at her bank on an anniversary date is the extent of it, but she instead withdraws her savings - all $1,757 of it - and heads to Foxwoods, where things go well and then don't. But then, on the bus home, her seatmate with a bag full of cash has a heart attack, and since he's got a gang tattoo, nobody would really get hurt if she goes home with it. A couple days later, "Little Handsome" (Michael Tow) and "Pockmark" (Woody Fu) from the Red Dragon gang show up, so she sensibly goes to the Zhongliang gang to get get some protection, in the form of gentle-seeming giant Big Pong (Ha Hsiao-Yuan).

Growing old means being left behind and out of place in a lot of different ways, with little to do but accept it either begrudgingly or bitterly, and filmmaker Sasie Sealy saturates Lucky Grandma with this. Grandma Wong exists in cramped corners and dark rooms, defiantly unchanging but, as a result, completely out of place when she ventures into her son's bright, bilingual household, and not really able to push back when her grandson brings it to her place. She's not alone or innocent in this - the film hinges on the fact that Mr. Lin's death probably would be completely unremarkable if he hadn't been moving a bunch of mob money - but that's not a knock on the film. Indeed, it suggests that part of growing old, at least for people like Ms. Wong, is a reluctance to admit to weakness, leading to greater isolation and aggression and often having a smaller space than one might otherwise have.

It's something that could have been hard to see, behind her dark glasses and taciturn manner, but the way Tsai Chin plays all of those little moments imbues them each with meaning that may or may not be explained later on, especially when adjacent ones seem to contrast: There's an aggression that's not exactly joyless but also not exuberant as her lucky numbers come up, which pairs well with the devastated but pessimistic acceptance when this stops. Later on, her back is up as she pushes Pong away so that she can talk to an old friend, a conversation that seems to be the most relaxed she has been through the whole film, like she's protecting something precious. Chin highlights how much this is not Wong's world without ever making it seem like she doesn't know how to navigate it, and there's a great sort of quiet tension between her and Eddie Yu as her son - they love each other but come from different worlds, and aren't really sure how to deal with the other. There's a more easily enjoyable contrast between her and Ha Hsiao-Yuan's Big Pong - visually, it's a size difference usually reserved for animation, and Ha plays that softness as a notable contrast to his charge's frequent harshness, a reticence that covers what is generally a friendly attitude. Despite his size, he still can fit in a lot of places, eventually.

Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng do a nice enough job of using the bag-of-money plot to put the life of an old, immigrant widow like Grandma Wong into focus that it's actually a little jarring when that plot spreads outside of her life and forces a confrontation, though not in a bad way - she, too, maybe has to be jolted into remembering that she's part of things. On either side of that moment, though, Sealy and her collaborators do a nice job of keeping things moving, giving the audience time to look around without feeling like they're stuck somewhere, emphasizing how places from a somewhat poor neighborhood to a casino can feel both off-putting and homey. They have some fun with how a senior lady is an unconventional choice for this sort of story, with the occasional music cue that's funkier than she is or a wink at how dark glasses to protect elderly eyes and frustration can often be read as cool indifference.

It's a combination that winds up too organically intertwined for Lucky Grandma to just be a bag-of-money movie with an older-than-usual lead, but also makes for a pretty great twist on that genre. That's on top of being one of those great showcases for someone who has spent much of a long career in character roles - but, then, that's why find a way to build a movie like this around this sort of veteran.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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