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LFF 2019: Lucky Grandma -“A very assured first feature”

Lady luck takes a glance in the wrong direction for a gambling Grandma in writer-director Sasie Siely’s debut feature. Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) is a nonchalant, grumpy delight from start to finish. An anti-hero with a misanthropic attitude: she chain smokes, argues with her bougie, Brooklyn-dwelling family about her living arrangements, and loudly complains about a man’s flatulence with little regard to who hears it among her fellow elderly Chinese bus passengers.

Chin has a few zingers in Sasie Siely and co-writer Angela Cheung’s breezy script, but it’s her facial expressions and withering glances that make this performance such a winner. After a few cool hands at the casino, the chips are well and truly down for the recently widowed, broke Grandma Wong and she leaves skint rather than minted.

The bus ride home offers one last tempting roll of the dice, and she swipes a bag of loot after realising the man next to her has died in his seat. His neck tattoo confirms that while he may not be claiming it, all bets are off that someone nasty will be soon. But Grandma believes in fate, and gangsters are tomorrow’s problem.

Chinatown heavies soon come knocking, so she tracks down protection from a rival gang through a knock-off designer bag shop. Still trying to game the system, Grandma Wong pays for the cheapest protection in the racket: Big Pong, a gentle giant (Corey Ha) who is sweet-natured and about as suited gangland life as she is.

Their dynamic is a joy to watch. He follows Grandma Wong around like a loyal pup. In exchange, she cooks for him and her grandson, and they watch Chinese soaps together. A lot of the film’s heart and soul is in these scenes in the tiny apartment, flickers of vulnerability shine through her steely demeanour.

The stakes only feel truly high at certain points, gangsters like Little Handsome are hapless thugs rather than criminal masterminds. But under the Coen’s-esque crime caper beats is some quietly subversive cultural commentary about inter-generational differences and the role of women in the criminal underworld too. Boss lady Sister Fong (Yan Xi) is by far the most menacing of the bunch.

Lucky Grandma is a very assured first feature. It’s unconcerned with the likeability of its lead, and blends broad comedy, action and character study with a light touch. The film stays with Grandma Wong’s point of view throughout, even the film’s action set pieces move largely at her speed.

Overall, it’s heavier on laughs than peril, but the action sequences aren’t mucking about and neither is Grandma Wong. Whether it’s staying one step ahead of criminals or educating her son about which way to point a Budda, she has a knack of getting her way.

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