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Grandma (Tsai Chin) is set in her ways. She lives alone, following the death of her husband, occasionally sees her son Howard (Eddie Yu) and his family, including his wife, and their children, including her favorite grandson, Little David (Mason Yam). She has a routine involving prayer, exercises at the pool, and soap operas. She also sees a fortune teller, Lei Lei (Wai Ching Ho), who she refers to as her doctor (and who even writes "prescriptions" for feng shui). On one of her visits, Lei Lei tells Grandma that she's going to become very lucky on October 28th. Grandma goes to a casino and racks up a big win, only to lose it all on a final card game. Depressed, she gets on the bus back home, only to discover her seatmate has died en route, leaving behind a bag full of cash. Desperate for the fortune to pay off, she takes the money, only to find herself pursued by various gangsters who want the cash back.
As outlined by all of the disc's extras, Lucky Grandma was the winner of an AT&T "Untold Stories" grant, which rewards underrepresented filmmakers with "a $1 million grant, mentorship, and a distribution deal," according to the official website. In some ways, this is Lucky Grandma's blessing, and its curse. The film checks off a number of representational boxes -- it has lots of women behind the camera, including co-writer/director Sasie Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng, it features an almost entirely Chinese cast and is culturally specific, and it stars a woman over 80 years old. The problem is the film itself, which features pleasant humor, a unique blend of tones, and good performances, but doesn't congeal into a story with a clear thematic goal.
Grandma is an interesting character, perhaps funnier with the right cultural background (for the record: I am Asian-American, but I was adopted), and Tsai Chin is wonderful in the role. However, Sealy and Cheng construct a story where Grandma is at the center of the story, driving the action, without offering any clarity on what exactly Grandma's arc is. One key nugget of backstory is delivered late in the movie, arguably positioned as a reveal, and while it does help to explain some of her attitudes and actions, it doesn't help to illustrate any particular way that Grandma is changed by the events of the movie. Early in the film, Howard suggests she should move in with them, and she declines. Grandma is stubborn and probably enjoys her solitude, but whether or not there are reasons for that beyond her age or cultural background, we never know. This reasoning also doesn't explain the amusing friendship that forms between her and Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), whom she hires as a bodyguard after two gangsters from an opposing outfit (Woody Fu and Michael Tow) break into her apartment. The dynamic between Grandma and Big Pong is one of the film's most successful elements, which, again, would be more satisfying if it felt like the existence of their relationship was part of Grandma's arc rather than a development of the plot.
Tonally, the film exists in a gray area. The film is kind of a comedy, but also kind of a thriller, and kind of a drama, but, like the story, the ambiguity of where the movie falls feels like a bug, not a feature. To Sealy's credit, the film segues smoothly enough between these tones, creating an overall sense of cohesion in the way the movie approaches its world and its characters, but instead of leaning into each one as the film switches gears, all of them feel reserved, like Grandma and her resolutely straight face. The film also looks nice, with elegant cinematography by Eduardo Enrique Mayen that uses depth of field to make the whole movie fit together and feel like a bigger-budget production.
It's tough to be harsh on Lucky Grandma, both because the film's diversity is a genuine plus, and because there's a scrappy independent spirit to it that makes it easy to want to root for the film. Still, it really feels like there should be more to Grandma: more of a journey, more of a sense of who she is and why, and what it is about this journey that changes her perspective. Instead, the film sort of shrugs its way to an epilogue that feels completely detached from the climax directly preceding it. In a way, the filmmakers' arc almost mirrors Grandma's: the money might be well-deserved, but the results of that money leave something to be desired.
Kino's Lucky Grandma, like their Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases, takes the poster and shrinks it a little to fit the smaller dimensions of a Blu-ray cover, which is basically a still image of Grandma stuffing her winnings into red bags, a scene which viewers will recognize from the finished film. The title is printed in yellow, an accent color that carries nicely around to the back cover, which is otherwise in black-and-white and features three photos from the film. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The packaging claims that Lucky Grandma is in 1.85:1, but to my eyes this appears to be much closer to a 1.78:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The picture has a nice, modern look, with attention to detail paid toward lighting and focusing that helps differentiate it from other, more generic modern digital productions (which tend to be brightly lit and with little visual style). Fine detail is outstanding, colors appear quite nice, and I did not notice any issues with artifacting or banding. Contrast can seem a little light, but I'm willing to believe this is part of the film's intended look. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which skews a little more toward the generic side, with straightforward directional effects and attempts at immersiveness. No issues with clarity or crispness. Two English subtitle tracks are provided, one which captions just the Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue, and another that subtitles the entire film, as well as a second DTS-HD Master Audio track in 2.0.
Extras consist of a series of seven Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes, all of which seem to have been produced through AT&T Untold Stories, which provided a $1 million grant toward the film's budget, and which vary in the degree to which they're promotion for the film, or promotion for AT&T's grant program. They include "Asian Influence" (5:12), "Why is This Important?" (1:52), "Unfiltered With Tsai Chin" (3:15), "Meet the Characters" (2:31), "Tribeca Premiere" (1:32), "Supporting Underrepresented Stories" (1:30), and "Women in Film" (2:22). Most of these are fairly surface-level pieces, and they cover similar ground. Of the lot, the first, the last, and the interview with Tsai Chin are probably the most essential (not that it would take very long to watch all of them). Minor annoyance: no "Play All" option.
An original theatrical trailer for Lucky Grandma is also included.
Lucky Grandma sounds good on paper but feels murky and undefined in execution. There's enough here that it will be interesting to see where Sealy and Cheng go next, together or apart, but hopefully next time they work a little harder to find a story that lives up to some of the representational idealism behind the idea. Rent it.
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