Teresa’s review published on Letterboxd:
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As an Asian American woman, I rarely find Asian films that appropriately strike the balance between being contemporary and maintaining cultural accuracy. It is often either akin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Crazy Rich Asians; nothing in between. Last year, The Farewell proved to be a rare exception. There’s something precious about the fact that both The Farewell and Lucky Grandma revolve around Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandma”), as opposed to labeling this character as just an elderly woman. The charm of Sasie Sealy’s feature debut, Lucky Grandma, lies in its ability to shed light on moments of the Asian American experience while simultaneously telling a compelling story about a Chinese grandma’s entanglement with New York City’s Chinatown’s mafia.
The protagonist in Lucky Grandma is Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), a grandma whose husband has passed but left her with no money. The opening shot of the film shows a Chinese fortune teller revealing to Nai Nai that she will be very lucky in the immediate future. This reading prompts Nai Nai to go to Atlantic City in hopes of winning a fortune. Ultimately, she does, but not in the way she expects. On the bus ride home, a duffel bag full of money falls in her lap and without much thought, she takes it. This sends two thugs, Pock-Mark and Little Handsome, on a journey to get their money back from Nai Nai, as they show up in her apartment the next day without warning.
Within five minutes of watching Lucky Grandma, I fell into its comfort. After the initial montage of Nai Nai smoking a cigarette without a care in the world, bargaining with street sellers in Chinatown, and doing Tai Chi during a water aerobic class, the film introduces Nai Nai’s family, which consists of her son, daughter-in-law, and Westernized grandchildren. As Nai Nai’s son tries to convince her to move in with them, their dialogue effortlessly switches between Chinese and English, a pattern that I often fall into with my own family. When Nai Nai loses her gamble at the casino, it is to the number “4,” a symbol of death in Chinese culture. It is these small, authentic tributes to Chinese culture that make Lucky Grandma feel like home.
Moreover, the contemporary style in which Sealy crafts Lucky Grandma is largely attributed to her excellent comedic timing and soundtrack. When Nai Nai needs a bodyguard to protect her from thugs, she bargains (while smoking a cigarette) with a local gang named the Red Dragon. Her budget forces her to take a sweet, but oblivious giant named Big Pong (Corey Ha), who she refers to as a “discount bodyguard” for a “discount price.” Pong’s protection services are subpar at best, but his company and intentions are invaluable. The irony of larger-than-life Pong and small but mighty Nai Nai together on-screen is a joke never missed, especially when paired with Andrew Orkin’s jazzy score.
When films like Lucky Grandma come out, it is blatantly obvious that stories created by minority directors and casts must never be overlooked. As I was reading reviews of Lucky Grandma, I found that most of them were written by non-Asian writers, who failed to mention the tidbits of the film that make it so great for Asian viewers. So as an Asian writer, thank you Sasie Sealy for creating a piece like Lucky Grandma and paying tribute to all the badass Nai Nais out there who never fail to let you forget the importance of respecting your elders.