An unusual, agreeable heist picture with just enough feeling behind the style to make it stick, “Lucky Grandma” rests almost wholly on the withering glances of Tsai Chin. Throughout co-writer and director Sasie Sealy’s feature debut, Chin, now 86, stares down everyone — from adorable grandson to threatening Chinatown gangster – with a look that says: Whatever I’m about to say or do, I’ve earned it. Oftentimes the glowering Chin, cigarette dangling, stares down the camera, i.e., the audience. You wonder if the camera is going to flinch.
Now 86, Chin may be best-known to American audiences for “The Joy Luck Club,” but she’s a fascinating show business survivor whose story travels across much of 20th century history. Born in China, educated in England, her parents were killed in the Cultural Revolution around the time Chin (in a sadly typical “exotic Oriental” cameo) traded banter, briefly, in bed with Sean Connery in “You Only Live Twice” and made do with sequels such as “Castle of Fu Manchu” starring Christopher Lee in yellowface. This was a decade after Chin scored a West End triumph in “The World of Suzy Wong,” though she didn’t get the chance to do the film version.
“Lucky Grandma” affords Chin a leading role she clearly relishes. Grandma Wong, recently widowed, lives in Manhattan’s Chinatown. She has a standing offer to move in with her son (Eddie Yu) and his family. She’s not eager to do so, and in the opening sequence, a visit with a fortune teller suggests she’s entering a period of exceptional good fortune. One bank withdrawal later, Grandma Wong joins a busload of neighborhood residents heading to a Connecticut casino.
This part’s the heisty part: On the bus ride back to Lower Manhattan, our newly broke protagonist is nearly conked on the head by a duffel bag full of cash belonging to the underworld accountant seated next to her. He is dead (heart attack), though no one on the bus realizes it but her. Stealthily, she heads home with the loot stolen, as it happens, from the Zhongliang triad ruling Chinatown. A pair of goons memorably named Pock-Mark (Woody Fu) and Little Handsome (Michael Tow) pay Grandma Wong a visit in short, threatening order.
A woman like this needs a bodyguard, and after some haggling with the rival Red Dragon gang, she acquires a sweet hulk of a specimen, Big Pong, played by Hsiao-Yuan Ha. “Lucky Grandma” follows Chin’s lead as she brazens her way through her character’s intersection with gangland warfare. The movie, co-written by Angela Cheng, has a fair share of violence and a child abduction subplot. Some of the tonal switches are effectively jarring; others are simply jarring. Sealy’s eye for compositions is rigorous and intriguing, though, even when her penchant for slickly edited montages takes over.
Seeing a confident small-scale indie such as “Lucky Grandma,” made by a director who’s clearly going places and starring a sharp performer who’s clearly been places, it’s sad to realize nothing is getting the theatrical release it deserves these days. Still: Watching Chin boss this movie, one close-up at a time, works at home just fine. There’s so much to see on that face, and so many tiny gradations of disdain or affection at play.
Now streaming on Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “From Your Sofa” platform.