The first time we meet Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) in Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma, she’s having her fortune read and puffing on a cigarette — the first of hundreds she smokes throughout the film. Her lucky day is coming, she’s told. The odds are finally in her favor.
With that information in hand, Grandma sets off for a night at an upstate casino, betting her life savings on a fateful game of poker. She loses; but on the way back, her seatmate dies in his sleep, leaving a bag full of cash right in Grandma’s lap. The catch? It belongs to the Red Dragons, a gang whose goons are now after her.
Part noir thriller, part dark comedy, the movie tracks Grandma’s efforts to keep the money at all costs, resorting to hiring a bodyguard of her own as she navigates the mean streets of Chinatown. The result is a movie that feels like Uncut Gems meets Dirty Grandpa: A singularly New York film that, just like the Safdie brothers’ 2019 movie, captures the life and rhythms of a specific neighborhood and deals in gambling gone wrong, while also giving the spotlight to a particularly salty octogenarian whose facial expressions could give Robert DeNiro a run for his money.
“I wanted her to be a superhero, but [also] difficult, complicated and grumpy,” Sealy said in a phone call with Refinery29 ahead of the film’s May 22 virtual release. “So many times you'll see a movie about an immigrant community and it’ll be a very serious perspective on that experience. I wanted to make a movie that was really fun. It's not often that you see an 80-year-old woman who doesn't have any money on-screen, or who’s no longer beautiful. I thought it was important to see someone like that at the center of the story.”
Ironically, Sealy was initially hesitant to cast someone in their 80s to play the part. “I originally was like, Oh no, I'm not going to do that to myself as the director. I'm going to look for a nice 70-year-old, somebody spry and energetic, and I’ll just age them with lots of makeup. But I wasn't finding the right grandma.”
That’s when a friend suggested Chin, best known for her role as Auntie Lido in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. She was 85 when she was cast — older even than Grandma. But after you see the film, you can’t imagine anyone else embodying this character’s particular brand of cranky. Still, what sets Lucky Grandma apart is the tender, empathetic way it values every aspect of its protagonist’s life. This is no stereotypical rendering of an elder gone bad. Some of the most powerful scenes in the movie deal with Grandma’s routine and habits, and her inner turmoil at having to give those up to go live with her son and his family in Brooklyn, as he keeps requesting.
“I definitely projected some of my own fears about getting old, like being helpless, having to depend on others,” Sealy said. “There's definitely this whole thing that happens when you get older where people start to treat you like a child.”
The idea for Lucky Grandma came from people watching. Sealy recalls taking the infamous Chinatown Bus from Chinatown to the Mohegan Sun Casino (which, fittingly, holds a pivotal role in Uncut Gems) with friends on gambling trips, and being fascinated by the vibe.
“I would basically be the only person under 50 on these buses. And the thing you have to understand about the buses is they leave at five or six o'clock in the afternoon and come back at four in the morning. So they're kind of like a party bus. I was like, Who are these people and where are they going?
“I love Humans of New York because it’s about people that you see on the street and don't think twice about,” Sealy added. “They all have their own stories, they're all like kind of the protagonists in their own narrative and their own world.”
But the very thing that makes Lucky Grandma so unique is also what kept it from getting made for nearly 5 years. When Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng tried to get independent financing for their project, they were repeatedly told that though the concept sounded fun, it wasn’t one that would fly in Hollywood. “This was pre-Crazy Rich Asians and all that kind of stuff. Nobody wanted to make a movie about an old woman, that was also mostly in [Mandarin.]”
It wasn’t until Sealy and Cheng won a million-dollar grant by AT&T and Tribeca Film Festival/Tribeca Film Institute as part of the Untold Stories program, which aims to support underrepresented filmmakers, that they were able to fund the movie, and shoot on location in New York City’s Chinatown.
If Uncut Gems’ beating heart was New York City’s Diamond District, Chinatown is the lifeblood of Lucky Grandma. The neighborhood shares the spotlight with Chin as the film’s protagonist as we follow her through her tiny apartment to morning Tai Chi at the community center, to her local hair salon, and the back alleys of Canal Street. Those chaotic street shots are a key part of Lucky Grandma’s appeal — but they’re also a bittersweet reminder these days of what’s at stake as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage New York City.
“I really worry about Chinatown surviving this year,” Sealy said. “It’s such an institution in New York, one of the last real neighborhoods that hasn’t been gentrified too much. It’s still authentically really a community. The thing I realized filming this movie is that people know each other. It’s kind of a little village. It’s a whole ecosystem that’s really vibrant, and I want to see that survive.”
Whether you’re hunkered down at home and desperately craving a walk through New York City, or just miss your grandma, this movie should be on your radar.