In her 86 years on this Earth, the venerable Chinese actress Tsai Chin has pretty much done it all: headlined in “The World of Suzie Wong” on the London stage, played a Bond girl (twice), had a hit record (“The Ding Dong Song,” 1960), and stolen “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) as Auntie Lindo. But I doubt you’ve ever seen her as she appears in “Lucky Grandma,” as a disheveled, chain-smoking, perpetually cranky senior citizen tangling with gangsters in New York’s Chinatown.
She and she alone makes the movie worth your time. Written by Angela Cheng and Sasie Sealy and directed by Sealy, “Lucky Grandma” is a low-budget labor of love that’s very funny until you realize it has no idea where it’s going. (The film will be available as a “virtual screening” from the Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters in association with the Boston Asian Film Festival; part of the proceeds benefit the theaters.)
As Grandma Wong, Chin shuffles through the movie with a permanent scowl and beady eyes that suspect the worst. She elbows her way to the front of lines, smokes indoors, and treats everyone with the same leveling rudeness. But she’s not above superstition, and when a fortune-teller (Wai Ching Ho) tells Grandma Wong that her lucky day is coming up, the old lady takes her meager life savings, boards the gamblers’ bus to Atlantic City, and goes on a high-rolling spree.
There’s good luck and bad luck, and a bag of mob money literally landing in Grandma Wong’s lap on the drive home counts as both. Soon she’s being threatened by two hapless toughs from the Red Dragon gang (Michael Tow and Woody Fu) and goes over to their rivals to hire protection. The scene in which she haggles with a bamboozled young hood (Zilong Zee) over a cut-rate bodyguard may be the movie’s high point.
The bodyguard she gets is Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), who looks about 6-foot-13 and has the physique of a beanbag chair; the pairing of nasty granny and mild-mannered goon is unexpectedly charming, and for a while “Lucky Grandma” contents itself and us by throwing odd, delightful curveballs, like the foul-mouthed Russian schoolmate (Arden Wolfe) of Grandma’s young grandson (Mason Yam), or the goofy dance the two kids do together.
Tethering the likable performances and easygoing vibe to a coherent story line proves harder, as Grandma tries to play the two triad outfits off against each other while stalling the local crime queen Sister Fong (Yan Xi). The final act is an action mishmash that then turns (almost) serious, which won’t do at all, although it’s worth noting that the star negotiates the speed bumps like the pro she is.
Still, “Lucky Grandma” gets points for simply existing: as a cheeky love letter to a storied actress; as a knowing portrait of Chinese-American city life and assimilation (Grandma has a Park Slope-dwelling son and daughter-in-law who keep needling her to move out to Brooklyn); and as a production with as much diversity behind the camera as in front. In a director’s statement, Sealy has dedicated the movie to “Chinatown and all the badass elderly women who inhabit it.” Maybe next time, Grandma Wong can get some mahjong pals together and pull off a proper heist.
Directed by Sasie Sealy. Written by Sealy and Angela Cheng. Starring Tsai Chin, Hsiao-Yuan Ma, Yan Xi. Available as a “virtual screening” through the Brattle and Coolidge Corner, www.brattlefilm.org and coolidge.org/films/lucky-grandma. In English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, with subtitles. Unrated (as PG-13: Some language and violence)