Cantankerous and fiercely independent, the 80-year-old Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) wants to live by herself in her Chinatown apartment in New York. Her son, Howard (Eddie Yu), wants her to move in with his family to save on rent. Encouraged by a fortune teller’s promise of imminent luck, she takes all her savings to a casino only to find herself — after some hilariously absurd twists — with a bagful of a dead man’s cash and a pair of gangsters on her tail.
The director Sasie Sealy’s feature debut has style and keenly observed visual humor. Each scene is paced as perfectly as a punchline, whether it’s Wong swaggering through the streets of New York, a cigarette dangling from her lips, or her tense maneuvers at the casino set to Andrew Orkin’s dramatic jazz score. The action parodies the quirks of New York’s Chinese-American underworld, often cleverly recasting cultural stereotypes in a new light: At one point, Wong outwits a gangster by haggling for a bodyguard (a tall, deceptively sheepish Corey Ha) as if she were buying an off-brand handbag.
“Lucky Grandma” puts an older Asian woman center stage without infantilizing her or rendering her pitiful. Chin, best known for “The Joy Luck Club,” exudes cool, and she’s effortlessly funny with her dagger eyes and sardonic jibes. Sealy can’t resist a bit of sentimentality toward the end, however, which upsets the film’s tightrope walk between charm and dark, razor-sharp wit.
Not rated. In English, Mandarin and Cantonese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. Watch on virtual cinemas.