Lucky Grandma is the kind of film that shouldn’t exist, but does. Let me explain. An Asian-American heist film that would make the Coen Brothers envious? Featuring an octogenarian Chinese woman while combining high-stakes black comedy with poignant family drama – mainly spoken entirely in Mandarin and set in Manhattan’s dingy Chinatown underworld? A movie like this only comes around once in a lifetime.
An 86-year-old Tsai Chin – a former 60s Bond Girl and the breakout star of The Joy Luck Club – fully inhabits the role of Grandma, an irascible first-gen immigrant whose days are spent dourly rebuking her Westernised children and shuffling around her tiny Chinatown apartment. Her money woes prompt her to steal a duffle bag full of cash off a corpse on the shuttle bus back from a casino. Tsai plays Grandma as David Carradine reincarnated as an elderly Chinese auntie – sly, cunning, prone to outbursts of scolding and chain-smoking magnificently through several packs a day. When the triads burst through her door demanding their money back, she’s more than equipped to take them on.
Five years in the making, director Sasie Sealy wrote this big-hearted homage to Chinese aunties and grandmas with co-writer Angela Cheng. It was only made possible after the pair won a million-dollar grant by AT&T and Tribeca Film Festival/Tribeca Film Institute as part of the Untold Stories program, which aims first-time feature filmmakers from underrepresented communities their shot at Hollywood. I spoke to Sasie about Lucky Grandma as it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival this year.
VICE: Lucky Grandma feels like such an affectionate portrait of an older generation of Chinese women who are really stoic and hard-nosed. What attracted you to that story?
Sasie Sealy: Angela and I always say that Grandma is an amalgam of all the women in our lives. I’ve always wondered where this stereotype of this quiet submissive Asian women came from, because no Chinese women that I know are like that. It was also originally inspired by being on one of those Chinatown bus rides with all the elderly Chinese people in New York. I remember looking around on one of those rides and thinking, Where are they all going? They were all on the bus ride back with me at four o’clock in the morning after a full night of gambling!
Tsai Chin was amazing in this.
She has a crazy story. She’s from Shanghai, from this super famous fancy theatre family; she was the first Chinese student at RADA and was cast as the original Suzie Wong on the West End straight out of drama school. Both of her parents were killed in the Cultural Revolution, so she didn’t go back to the mainland for decades and ended up staying in London during the swinging 60s. Basically, Tsai has had so many lives. She had a resurgence in her career when she was in The Joy Luck Club. She became a bit of a Hollywood darling at age 65. But she never really had a starring role. They just didn’t exist. [But] she’s in every scene in this movie. She has a very different biography to Grandma. Grandma’s not really educated or anything like that. But in spirit, they’re exactly the same.
Was it hard to find her? It’s a very specific role – you’re looking for someone quite a bit older, who can speak Mandarin convincingly.
We looked for a really long time. When I first started looking, the character in my mind was Cantonese because my mum’s from Hong Kong. I was also looking for someone younger because I was scared to make a movie with an 80-year-old. There’s action scenes in the movie. I had this idea in my head that I would find this 65-year-old we would age up with makeup.
A friend of mine went to a 25th anniversary screening of The Joy Luck Club in LA and Tsai was doing the Q&A. He called me immediately afterwards and was like, “I think you need to meet her.” I flew to LA literally two days later and we had an epic four-hour dinner where we talked each other into making this movie together.
I just watched The Farewell, which has a standout grandma as well. But what’s amazing about Lucky Grandma is that the older woman isn’t a side character. She’s front and centre. Was it hard for you to get into that mindset?
Weirdly, I felt like it came pretty naturally. Grandma was always such a clear character from the beginning in our heads. She really leapt off the page. I mean, Tsai will tell you that I know nothing about being old [laughs]. She definitely had a few thoughts when she read the script, like, “I won’t run. An 80-year-old does not run.” So we changed it to “fast walking”.
I love that she’s the main character. That’s one of the things we wanted to do. Women like that are just not the main characters in movies. She doesn’t have any money, she’s no longer beautiful – I mean, Tsai is beautiful, but it’s not about her sexuality – she’s not powerful, she’s someone in society who is invisible to most people. But that doesn’t mean she’s invisible in her own story. She’s totally the hero and the protagonist.
When you started out making a feature film, did you intend to tell an Asian-American story?
No, not at all. When I started writing the script at the time, I was just fascinated by the aunties on the bus and innately inspired by the story of Grandma. It wasn’t until I tried to raise money for the movie that I came up against the reality of the industry and how hard it would be as an American filmmaker. Over the years – because it took five years to get this movie made – so much has happened in terms of consciousness-raising and the diversification of voices seen on screen. As I worked more in the industry and talked to more people, I became more aware that this was an Asian-American story and it was important that we do this. But the initial impulse to do it and write the story was divorced from that. It was really just about Grandma for me.
Do you think Hollywood is getting better at telling those Asian-American stories?
I think there’s definitely been progress, whether it’s a passing fad remains to be seen. But I definitely think people are more open than they have been. But there’s still a lot of pressure on every Asian story that comes out to basically speak for all Asian-American stories. It’s not like we’re at a point where the tapestry is as rich as it should be to allow for different stories. Even in the US, there’s a really big difference between the different groups. Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Cambodian Americans – there’s so much class difference and experience. People talk about Asian Americans as a monolithic group, but really we’ve not even tapped the surface of all of the different experiences that are there.
The great thing about a genre film like Lucky Grandma is that you get to discuss that, but not in a way that feels heavy. It’s more of a lighter touch.
That’s something we definitely discussed and I feel strongly about. Personally, politically, all of that stuff like the representation of women and different voices onscreen and behind the camera is important to me – but I still think cinema is cinema. It should be an experience. It should be provocative or fun or interesting. Ultimately at the end of the day, I don’t think it should feel like homework.
What are you hoping that audiences are going to take away from this film?
I hope that maybe if they see a grandma on the street next time, they’ll wonder what her story is. They’ll take a second look and treat her as a human being. There’s so many stories that are invisible.
I’m going to tell my mum to watch it, but I feel like she’ll consider it slightly insulting if I tell her that she reminds me of Grandma.
Oh yeah, my mum has seen it and she has no idea she’s exactly like that. [laughs] She’s such a Chinese mum. When she says it, she said, “Huh, it’s better than I thought”. And I thought, OK, thanks mum. That’s high praise coming from you.