Crime and comedy in Lucky Grandma

B+ Comedy thriller
Written by Angela Cheng and Sasie Sealy
Directed by Sasie Sealy

It’s rare for a comedy to turn into a thriller – especially a thriller that forces you to feel the losses that result from violence. And yet, writer/director Sasie Sealy manages that task with surprising flare.

But she couldn’t have done it without the amazing veteran actress Tsai Chin, playing the chain-smoking Grandma of the title. her deadpan is almost as good as Buster Keaton’s. Whether she’s gambling or enjoying a birthday party with the family, her face barely moves. And like Keaton, she registers full emotions with body language and the most miniscule movements of her facial muscles. (By the way, Chin has been around for a long time. She had an uncredited, voice-only role in Bridge on the River Kwai and played a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice.)

Grandma’s luck seems in full force when she gets her hands on two fortunes in one night. The first time is legit; she wins at a legal casino – but then she gets cocky and loses it. The second time, a lot of gang money falls almost literally into her lap – which when you think about it, isn’t really at all lucky. Why does she hold onto the hot cash? Her son wants her to move in with his family, but she prefers her privacy. She needs money to keep her apartment. This is mostly set in New York’s Chinatown. The dialog is in a New York mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.

After being threatened by gangsters – she reproaches one by pointing out that “I know your aunt!” – she goes to a rival gang to hire a bodyguard. And that’s where the film’s magic really comes alive. The bodyguard she gets (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) is huge, strong, sweet, not too smart, and basically innocent. Just the visuals of Chin and Ha, the tiny old lady and the gentle giant together can make you laugh. Their friendship becomes a central part of the story.

Of course, Grandma can’t quite explain this huge sudden companion when she visits her family. A granddaughter assumes this much younger and bigger man must be Grandma’s boyfriend.

But somewhere around the halfway point, the film changes. I can’t tell you what happens, but it makes the movie a little less fun, and considerably more serious. That’s just the first sign of the film’s much bigger change of tone.

By the time Lucky Grandma gets to the third and final act, the movie has become something far more frightening. Now the film reminds us that violence hurts, and reminds us that sometimes the results are fatal. It takes Grandma awhile to realize just how serious the situation has become.

That’s a fine trick for a filmmaker; especially for one who has no experience beyond shorts and TV shows.

Lucky Grandma opens Friday, May 22 through the Balboa, Lark, New Mission, and Vogue through virtual cinema.