There’s a silent movie quality to Lucky Grandma, the story of a Chinese grandmother in New York’s Chinatown who gets tangled up with the Triads and somehow (OK, improbably) comes out on top.
But first let’s meet Grandma, played superbly by Tsai Chin (86 when this was made, though she could easily be 15 years younger) as a Buster Keaton-style stone-faced senior, smoking smoking smoking the entire time, partly just because she wants to, partly, we suspect, as a rebuke to a world that is increasingly infantilising her.
One of the places where she isn’t infantilised is the casino, where we follow her just after she’s turned town her caring son’s offer of a chance to move in with his family – she likes it where she is, she told him, and anyway things haven’t got to that point yet.
At the casino she’s treated just like all the other schmucks, but unlike all the other schmucks she wins big – luck was coming her way, her fortune teller had promised – only to lose it all again. And then, chance clearly feeling as if it really needs to put its foot down, on the way back home the man in the seat next to her drops dead and so she takes ownership of the big bag of cash he happened to be carrying.
The cash belongs to the Triads and this is the nub of the film – Grandma v the gang – though things even up a bit when Grandma hires Big Pong (Ha Hsiao-Yuan), a heavy (and big softie) from a rival gang to help protect her when the bad guys come calling.
He’s just shy of 6ft 7in, she’s 5ft 2in. There’s a size thing going on, which is milked for silent-movie-style laughs. The fact that he’s about 40 years younger than her leads also to the suspicion that there might be a Harold and Maude old/young thing about to develop.
Not quite, though the two do certainly become affectionate. Things could probably amble along in this gently humorous way to the end but instead jeopardy arrives in the shape of Sister Fong (Xi Yan), and how nice to see a woman as a gang boss, even if she is the usual loquacious, over-enunciating sort.
As battle is joined and Big Pong’s Zhongliang gang engages with the Red Dragon outfit – with Grandma in the middle – the comedy is parked and there’s nowhere else for implausibility to hide, before things finally resolve themselves gently, all signified by Grandma’s decision to quit smoking.
Lucky Grandma isn’t in awe of notions of authenticity – neither fortune-telling nor Chinese medicine seem to be getting wholehearted endorsement – and it’s rather good on the look and feel of New York’s Chinatown. As well as the crispy duck and dried prawns in jars there are shops full of plastic tat, strip lighting, stuff piled to the ceiling.
Uneasy tonal shifts to one side, this is a good story told at speed. The side characters may be caricatures, but Grandma is the real deal. Having been in everything from The Joy Luck Club to Casino Royale, Tsai Chin seizes the opportunity of a starring role with both hands and runs with it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020