‘Lucky Grandma’ Deserves Your Respect

Support this video-on-demand Chinatown heist comedy

Perhaps this movie, Lucky Grandma, is a test of assimilation. Born in America, I described it as a black comedy. Born on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, my father, to whom I recommended it, regarded it as good but not funny; to him, it was a “slice of life,” and his concise remark upon finishing was, “Yes, we Chinese believe in that sort of thing.”


The set up is simple, which allows it to be preposterous. A newly widowed Chinatown resident, the understandably dyspeptic chain-smoking octogenarian of the title, is told by a fortune teller that she has been cheated by fate until this very moment.

With a glowering stare matched by the tip of her cig, Mrs. Wong has her opportunity coming up very soon. Her hope is to avoid moving to the suburbs, with her successful son and his saccharine brood, who are as cheerful as she is annoyed. She is determined to put it all on the Asian auspicious number 8, at every game of chance available in Atlantic City. Traveling by bus full of her ethnic cohort for an adventure, she is instructed, bilingually no less, that there is to be no spitting and no gossiping.

Suffice it to say that the cliché about “the house” turns out to be true. Although the lady strikes it rich, it is an unexpected event that leaves her clutching a bag of cash. Of course a wad of paper money might not be quite legit. The plot is about her efforts to hold onto her gains, against the owners who themselves are not quite rightful either.

The director’s attitude, like the protagonist’s, is deadpan. They present their material straight without any smirks. It’s like Birdman or The Lobster. Or The Farewell of last year, an Asian American family “dramedy” that depicted terminal illness and familial estrangement alike, emphasizing the fibs we tell to fool ourselves as much as others.

I’ll reserve primary praise for the star, Tsai Chin, who should be more famous, with her long list of breakthrough credits. Chin was the first again and again, from the London stage (the World of Suzie Wong) to being a “Bond girl” (You Only Live Twice, opposite Sean Connery; and then decades later a cameo as a high stakes gambler seated next to Daniel Craig in his debut holding the license to kill). The English-trained actress was the sharp-tongued Auntie Lindo (mother to Waverly) in The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 hit based on the Amy Tan novel. She has been in Western classics such as the Oresteia and Scarlet Letter and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Her “Ding Dong Song” charted in Asia. She also has been the subject of a feature documentary profile and published an autobiography, Daughter of Shanghai.

The movie also excels in its portrayal of Asian organized crime. Unlike the Italian mob or its Irish and Jewish associates and competitors, Asian organized crime has never received respect on screen. Epics such as The Godfather gave the mafia operatic treatment, as scenes cut between Mario Puzo’s novels (which he would have written better, he said, if he had predicted they’d be so popular) and Puccini arias.

Michael Cimino’s 1985 flop of a comeback, The Year of the Dragon, represents Asian gangsters in the form of Joey Tai (John Lone). Asian American activists protested it for stereotyping, with its literal-minded racial hierarchy, a hero cop named Stanley White, played by Mickey Rourke. The Lucky Grandma encounters more than her share of the criminal set. They are individual, human, and humorous, about as sinful or saintly as you might wish for supporting players to be. They even have nicknames, as they ought.

The crime comedy is an established genre. The many entries include Get Shorty; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels and spin-off; and the Rush Hour franchise. Many plots, as in Lucky Grandma, involve ordinary folks inexplicably caught up in potentially violent schemes, such as The Big Lebowski, Date Night, Keanu, and Stuber.

The difficulty is tone. In Bruges, for example, follows a pair of hit men who have to cool off for a bit following a botched job. Despite featuring violence more realistic than cartoonish, it renders its dark humor with a light touch. Even Shakespeare penned “problem plays.” All’s Well That Ends Well and Timon of Athens, among others, are challenging, since melancholy and bitterness come on suddenly and strongly. Grandma is pitch perfect because it underplays its hand. This isn’t Estelle Getty in the Sylvester Stallone-headed Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, in which she wields a Smith & Wesson .38 Special.

“Lucky” is not an appropriate adjective for this purposeful grandmother. History credits Louis Pasteur, who discovered that germs cause disease, with the phrase, “Chance favors the prepared.” That’s an apt aphorism in this instance. Lucky Grandma is an individual ready for change.

The moment also happens to be right for this movie. It’s a big moment for smaller movies to find viewers. This independent release is another test of the viability of video on demand during a pandemic. The price of admission is $9.99, far less than a pair of tickets at a theatre. You can also rent it for $4.99 It’s well worth supporting. Lucky Grandma, like its title character, deserves to win.

Audiences of all backgrounds are interested in Asian American personalities. This Lucky Grandma is good to have around for a couple of hours. May she return to the gaming house often and successfully. The trailer tagline is perfect: “Respect your elders.”

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Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and the President Designate of Queens College. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

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