We’re all using our time in self-isolation differently. For me, it’s a lot of watching films that—until a global pandemic had me home 24/7—were blindspots in my viewing history (or as the Tribune’s Michael Phillips calls it, the Overdue Film Festival). I recently delighted in an eight-film series of screen siren Rita Hayworth’s most iconic work, for example—the first time I’d ever really seen any of the legend’s work.
This week’s new streaming options present yet another opportunity to take in an older film I’d never seen: Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, the 1991 period piece that Roger Ebert called “angry and romantic.” Starring Rosalind Chao (who would go on to star in The Joy Luck Club and, more recently, The Laundromat and the upcoming Mulan), the film is set in the pioneer Idaho of the 1880s and based on the true stories of Asian men and women brought to the United States as indentured servants or forced brides—human property, however you cut it. Lalu (Chao) lives quietly with her family in the Mongolian hills, but all that is upended when her father sends her off to a marriage broker; after a de-humanizing experience on an auction block, a Chinese man (Dennis Dun) exchanges the gold of the film’s title for the right to walk away with Lalu.
Without any choice in the matter, Lalu is resigned to her fate as this man’s wife. But her journey has just begun. Jim (his Americanized name) is actually just a middleman, and he escorts Lalu all the way to the settlement in Idaho where he hands her off to the real source of the sale, Hong King (Michael Paul Chan). A merchant and business man who works out of the local saloon, Hong King plans to auction Lalu’s virginity off to the highest bidder. As Lalu, known as “China Polly” to the locals, fiercely resists—even threatening to kill herself rather than be forced into prostitution—the saloon’s owner Charlie (Chris Cooper) steps in to stop the auction all together. A veteran of the Civil War who fought against slavery, Charlie makes it clear that no human is property and helps Lalu, who’s beginning to learn English, understand she that might be able to find work and earn her freedom from Hong King.
Written by Anne Makepeace and based on a novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold was made and released in the same era as films like Dances with Wolves and The Piano. Though all three films explore colonialism, clashes between cultures and unlikely connections, it’s the latter two that are best remembered in popular culture. But the case could be made that Kelly’s lush drama, punctuated by stirring performances from both Chao and Cooper, should be just as appreciated thirty years on. As a woman who has to learn very quickly how to fend for herself and take her destiny into her own hands, Chao’s performance is a confident, even charming one. Scenes with Cooper, who like Chao was mostly a television actor up to this point, have a warmth that’s otherwise absent everywhere else in the rough and gritty Idaho mining town. Their eventual connection is a conclusion that’s evident from the moment he stops the auction for her virginity, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable to watch as each character acknowledges their growing affections.
Filmed by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (who’s since built a lengthy resume, including Rosewater, Phoebe in Wonderland and Saved!), Thousand Pieces of Gold features stunning landscapes of a developing settlement and its surroundings while immersing us in the mud and mess of the wild west. Kelly went on to make award-winning documentaries after this film’s original release; creating Lalu’s world and giving her story life—from the period costumes and sets to the gender, racial and societal dynamics of it all—must’ve felt like something similar to seeking the truth of those later films. Taken together, Thousand Pieces of Gold remains both a worthwhile exploration of individuality and agency as well as a beguiling love story.
Thousand Pieces of Gold is now streaming via Kino Marquee and the Siskel Film Center; a portion of your rental goes to support the cinema.