Throughout the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up your virtual tickets.
Over the past decade, Noirvember – a month-long celebration of film noir originally created by Cinema Fanatic blogger Marya – has burgeoned into a kind of unofficial virtual genre festival. The smoky, sultry, down-and-dirty chaser to October’s horror-film marathons, Noirvember sees online film critics and enthusiasts diving into 30-day viewing challenges, churning out appreciations for titles both beloved and obscure, and, of course, thirst-posting about classical Hollywood stars. (Timothée Chalamet has nothing on Robert Mitchum or Dana Andrews in certain circles.) Perhaps inevitably, Noirvember has often been an occasion for chin-stroking reflections on how the genre has evolved since it attained arguably its most iconic expression in the American studio features of the 1940-50s.
It is accordingly a timely moment to explore writer-director Sasie Sealy’s debut feature, Lucky Grandma, a modern-day comic noir that repurposes the genre’s elements in fascinating ways. The screenplay, which Sealy co-wrote with Angela Cheng, proffers the kind of ordinary-Joe-in-peril plot one could easily imagine in a Billy Wilder picture. Desperate to put their hands on some quick cash, a world-weary NYC gambler stumbles onto a bag stuffed with money. Unfortunately, this windfall is the property of local mobsters, obliging the protagonist to reach out to a rival gang for protection. And so it goes, with our hero becoming entangled in a spiraling situation where bad choices and even worse luck result in an absurd, violent escalation.
In the case of Lucky Grandma, the protagonist happens to be an elderly, chain-smoking Chinese-American woman (Tsai Chin) whose primary motivation is to maintain her independence. Recently widowed and left with virtually nothing by her no-goodnik husband, this dyspeptic grandmother – who is never named in the screenplay but called Grandma by family and strangers alike – is determined to hang onto her cramped Manhattan apartment, rather than move in with her adult son (Eddie Yu) and his family. To that end, she withdraws her meager savings and hops a bus to Atlantic City, but it’s what happens on the dismal, empty-pocketed ride home that alters Grandma’s fate. The older man sitting next to her – who happens to be a Triad courier – dies in his sleep during the trip, and his duffel full of cash proves too great a temptation for Grandma.
Soon enough, a pair of half-witted but vicious goons (Michael Tow and Woody Fu) appear in her living room, demanding the money. Grandma plays it dumb and indignant – “I know your aunt!” she scolds one of the thugs – but she’s rattled enough to approach another gang and hire the towering Big Pong (Hasiao-Yuan Ha) as her personal bodyguard. This leads to numerous complications, the least of which is how to explain all this to her young grandson David (Mason Yam), who regularly stops by to do his homework at Grandma’s flat and savor her home cooking.
There’s also the fact that the dead bagman seems to have been playing several Triads against each other, which earns Grandma the inherited enmity of underworld queen Sister Fong (Yan Xi). Buoyed by Tsai Chin’s marvelously deadpan performance and Andrew Orkin’s quirky score, Lucky Grandma plays its increasingly fiasco-level events for droll comedy, without ever forgetting the very real threat of violence that lurks just around the corner. The film takes a turn into a more familiar crime-thriller territory in its final stretch, as Grandma’s efforts to shield herself and her son’s family from her own questionable decisions begin to crumble.
What truly distinguishes Sealy’s feature, however, is not merely the novelty of placing a female, Asian-American octogenarian character in the role of a hapless noir protagonist. (For viewers who primarily know the Chinese-English Tsai Chin from her role in various Fu Manchu and Bond films, or 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, Lucky Grandma will be a delightful re-introduction.) Sealy and Cheng tear down the genre’s elements and then rebuild them around the vivid details of Chinese-American life, replacing the usual caustic cynicism of noir with a softer, more sorrowful tone. Instead of a toxic concoction of greed, lust, and petty vengeance, Lucky Grandma is concerned with trickier matters of cultural assimilation, elderly autonomy, and the slippery blend of devotion and resentment that only family can inspire. It’s this combination of genre fundamentals and refreshing reconfiguration that makes Sealy’s film an inspired and worthy Noirvember selection.
Virtual tickets for Lucky Grandma are available to MO and IL viewers from Nov. 5 - 22 and can be purchased here.