Grade: B
Comedy, Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Timing matters, and this first full-length feature from director Sasie Sealy comes to Blu-ray at a time when Bong Joon-Ho’s surprising Oscar-winning Parasite is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Like that South Korean film, Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown, is a black comedy that veers into thriller territory. It’s a mash-up of genres that also carries an unspoken social message. With Bong it was class inequity; with the New York-based Sealy, it’s aging. And her main character, the recently widowed Grandma Wong, refuses to go gently into that good night, or even move in with her son and his family.

Don’t bother looking up Sealy’s Wikipedia page, because she’s so new she doesn’t even have one yet. So far her big push to get on the film world’s radar has come from her participation in Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival, which twice honored her with Student Visionary Awards (Elephant Garden, 2008; Dance Mania Fantastic, 2005). But with a first feature that’s as solid as Bong’s own black comedy debut (Barking Dogs Never Bite), she’ll be getting that Wikipedia page and probably more awards soon enough.

If your family liked Parasite, you’ll like Lucky Grandma. It’s a film for families that like to push their entertainment boundaries. Children who enjoy it will be old enough to handle the mixed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese voice track with English subtitles, because when it comes right down to it that’s the biggest factor. There’s violence, but not nearly as much as what’s shown in the average superhero movie. There’s language, but again nothing compared to what Hollywood has been producing lately. And there’s smoking, but it’s more of a comic device than anything else.

Chain-smoking Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin, The Joy Luck Club) learns in the opening sequence with a fortuneteller that October 28th is going to be a very lucky day for her, so she rebuffs her son’s pleas to move in with them so he doesn’t have to pay rent on two apartments. She’ll be able to pay her own rent soon, she tells him. To claim the fortune that fate has foretold, she boards a bus headed for a casino and ends up returning with a big bag of money. But she runs afoul of a Chinese gang trying to get that money, and after she goes to a rival gang to “rent” a bodyguard, well, one thing leads to another. Apartments get ransacked. People get roughed up. There’s shooting. And this woke Grandma wields a big wok to make her own point.

Lucky Grandma may sound a bit like Bad Grandmas (about four elderly women who accidentally kill a con artist and find themselves in hot water with the man’s partner), but the tone, the level of artistry and sophistication, and the screenplay itself locate it more in Bong territory, with one big difference: Bong’s third act goes completely off the rails as the action becomes more and more surreal, while Sealy’s takes turns that are less outrageous. She rides the brakes, while Bong lets it go Expedition Everest out-of-control. The only real negative is that, as a result, a sense of inevitability gently erodes the edges of surprise and quirkiness that Sealy had established early on with an indie-influenced quirkiness and music. That third act just doesn’t have the zip and zing of the first two. After it’s over you think, yes, of course, while after Bong’s you’re still going WTF.

There’s a little incredulity here, but it comes from watching the amazing Chin, who does have her own Wikipedia page. The classically trained actress, who earned a Master’s degree and also had a singing career in the 1960s, once played a “Bond girl” in You Only Live Twice. After her stellar stage, screen, and television career, it’s not surprising that Chin still has a compelling screen presence and is able to carry Lucky Grandma . . . until you do the math and realize that she made this film at age 86! Jack Nicholson was 65 when he made a similar-themed film, but if I had to pick only one to watch over and over, I would choose Lucky Grandma, not About Schmidt. The latter dwells on the pain of aging and loneliness; Lucky Grandma shrugs it off like a bullet that only grazes you.

Some critics have made a bigger deal about the relationship between Grandma Wong and bodyguard Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), but, really, Sealy keeps the focus squarely on the Grandma, resisting the urge to turn it into another Driving Miss Daisy. The emphasis in this film is on the action and on a feisty, stoic, and determined main character whose behavior seems ageless. What children haven’t sung Happy Birthday to a grandparent, watched them struggle slightly to blow out the candles, then wished them a warm goodbye, thinking of them only in terms of what they see? Lucky Grandma pulls back the curtain to show what the family doesn’t see: in this case, a character who’s almost as “gangster” as any of the bad guys she encounters. If you look past the crustiness, Grandma Wong is also someone who’s determination can be a lesson for anyone feeling the burden of limitations, whether those limitations are age, gender, physiology, race, or anything else. Despite her selfishness and lack of filter, there’s much to admire in this Lucky Grandma, who probably thinks that Dylan Thomas should stop whining about not going gently into that good night and instead get out there and do something about it.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 87 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Mandarin, English, and Cantonese DTS 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for smoking, drinking, violence)

Language: 5/10—Two f-bombs, both spoken by a youngster

Sex: 1/10—One offhanded remark concerning a prostitute

Violence: 5/10—There’s shooting and some deaths, but mostly off-screen; there are also fistfights and one character dies after hitting his head accidentally; the cringiest moment actually comes when a man runs a knife across his own tongue and spits blood, but he’s unhurt

Adult situations: 6/10—There’s smoking and drinking at the casino, an uncomfortable bus ride, and Grandma’s chain smoking

Takeaway: After Snowpiercer, Bong returned to black comedy and gave movie-lovers an even stronger one than his debut film, an Oscar winner; here’s hoping this isn’t the last black comedy we see from Sealy