At times wryly comedic and at others deeply stressful and heartbreaking, Lucky Grandma follows Wong Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), a chain-smoking Chinese grandmother living a dreary day-to-day existence in New York City. Though her son and his family are relatively well-to-do, Wong Nai Nai chooses to prolong her financially limited independence, which is funded mainly by regular trips to the casino after her fortune teller presages good luck.
One particular trip starts auspiciously with boundless 8s — the luckiest number in Chinese culture — until, of course, it abruptly turns on an unlucky 4. Somehow that 4 leads to a man with a duffel full of cash who sits next to Wong Nai Nai on the bus back to the city and promptly dies. Wong Nai Nai, thinking her luck has turned, takes the cash — and unwittingly gets in the middle of a Chinese gang war.
Even after two goons invade her apartment and she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), a bodyguard from a rival gang, to protect her, Wong Nai Nai maintains her innocence in the most grandmotherly way possible: She lies with a straight face and acts offended every time someone insists that she took the money. Perhaps at the beginning she lies out of self-preservation; if she keeps the lie going long enough, maybe they’ll believe her and leave her alone. But by the end, we understand she does it for an entirely different reason. Wong Nai Nai believes she deserves this money because, despite a long and prosperous marriage, her husband left her with nothing when he died.
This is a chord that particularly struck home with me. My grandmother — who, like Wong Nai Nai, was both an immigrant and a devoted wife — was similarly left with nothing when my grandfather died, based on decisions he made 20 years prior when he, in all his patriarchal self-absorption, thought it was totally inconceivable that he would be the spouse to die first. Death is traumatic enough, but when it is followed by financial upheaval of this scale, it’s like a second death on its own. The psychological damage is impossible to quantify, and it makes impulsive decisions like Wong Nai Nai’s entirely too easy to understand.
As everyone from gentle bruisers to crime lords with perfect eyeliner (Yan Xi as the fascinating Sister Fong) confront Wong Nai Nai about the missing money, she remains resolute in her denial despite the murder and mayhem she’s initiated — until the stakes become too precious. Then, in one of the most gut-wrenching hostage-negotiation scenes in recent memory, she does what any grandmother would do, puts aside her wounds from the past and begs to save her grandson’s future. In the end, Wong Nai Nai and her family come through the danger alive, but not without damage piled upon the lifetime’s worth of hurt she was trying to remediate with the stolen money. It’s an ending that’s happy — but not without some bitterness, as life can so very often be.
All told, Lucky Grandma is a crime film like no other, in part because of its singular title character and in part of the fine balance director and co-writer Sasie Sealy sustains between its alternating comedic and dramatic turns (a tone that Andrew Orkin’s strong score also helps to anchor). Similarly, Sealy has a remarkable way of framing contained spaces like Wong Nai Nai’s small apartment both to build tension and to emphasize her isolation. Even the moments where Wong Nai Nai allows herself to grow closer to Big Pong are framed in such a way that accentuates the protective distance she keeps between herself and others, even her family.
That distance is familiar to me. One of my biggest regrets is the distance that came between me and my grandparents before they died — a distance, I think, that was made wider on both ends. For vastly different reasons, I believe neither of my grandparents really wanted their oldest granddaughter to see them approaching death; I didn’t either, and so in those last few years, I didn’t visit them as often as I should have. I regret that it happened, but I know why it did. We wanted to lessen the blow of the inevitable loss. If only it worked that way.
I see my grandparents’ distance in Wong Nai Nai, who insists on independence as a way to avoid becoming an emotional burden on her family, and as a way to detach herself from anyone who might hurt her in the same way her husband did. Through a combination of bad luck and good, Wong Nai Nai learns that it doesn’t work that way, either. But at least she learns before it’s too late.
Lucky Grandma is part of the Official Selections at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13 — AMC Castleton
5:40 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 15 — AMC Castleton