starring Tsai Chin, Corey Ha, Michael Tow, Woody Fu
written by Angela Cheng & Sasie Sealy
directed by Sasie Sealy
by Walter Chaw There's no arguing with the craft of Sasie Sealey's Lucky Grandma, nor are there any aspersions to cast on the diversity of its crew and the inspiration of its funding as the million-dollar winner of an AT&T- and Tribeca-sponsored screenplay contest. But its backstory is ultimately more interesting than the film itself. In the end, it feels like a support system for the star-making performance of its octogenarian lead, Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club); it's not serious enough to make much of an emotional impact, was never meant to be an action film, and is just amusing enough to force comparisons with Stephen Chow's depictions of bad-ass grandmothers. In other words, Lucky Grandma sort of trundles along for a while and then stops. Along the way, however, there's that central performance, married to a few fine supporting turns (especially ex-basketballer Corey Ha as a gentle-souled bodyguard) and an end product that looks like it had a budget many times its actual budget. There's promise here as a feature debut.
If the intention of the film is to tell untold stories about underrepresented groups, I worry that Lucky Grandma isn't distinctive so much as a somewhat novel combination of oft-told tales. An Asian-American woman director is as exceptionally cool as it is rare, though I'm actually more interested in Sealey's and co-screenwriter Angela Cheng's stories than I am in Grandma's. For all the death and mayhem, it doesn't feel like there's much risk here. For all the diversity in its production, there's nothing at all challenging about the picture that would create useful controversy or, failing that, even much follow-up conversation. At its worst, Lucky Grandma reinforces broad stereotypes about the culture it's trying to represent. At its best, it has some real things to say about dealing with an elder family member and its similarities and difficulties across cultures and time. And at its very best, it has moments like the one where, rather than thank a family member for giving her a place to stay, Grandma complains about her room and then sits, turned away, until she's left alone with her gratitude, fear, and shame. More of that, please. I'm full to the brim with the other stuff.