THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD (Nancy Kelly, 1990)
Virtual opening April 24
YouTube Live Q&A with Rosalind Chao, Chris Cooper, Nancy Kelly, Kenji Yamamoto, and Anne Makepeace on April 29 at 8:00
Five-day BAM pass $12
Rosalind Chao lights up the screen in Nancy Kelly’s long-forgotten 1990 Western melodrama Thousand Pieces of Gold, which has been revived in a beautiful 4K restoration from IndieCollect, which begins its virtual release this weekend through BAM in New York and the Autry Museum in LA. Adapted by Anne Makepeace from Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s 1981 historical novel, the feminist epic is set in 1880, when Lalu (Chao), born in a tiny village in northern China, is sold by her father into slavery, winding up in a small mining town in Idaho. Her owner, Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), is a prominent gambler who runs the local brothel and has plans to exploit Lalu, renamed China Polly, as an exotic prostitute well worth higher prices.
But Lalu, strong-willed and determined, refuses to give in, fighting the seemingly inevitable fate of joining Berthe (Beth Broderick) and the other whores. The only people on her side are Jim (Dennis Dun), a Chinese man who transported her from San Francisco to Idaho and regrets his role in the deal, and Charlie (Chris Cooper), who runs the saloon and finds an aching humanity in Lalu; he stands up for her when such lowdown and dirty men as Jonas (Jimmie F. Skaggs), Miles (Will Oldham), and Ohio (David Hayward) either line up to be with her or look the other way when she is abused. Every time Lalu, a smart, brave woman who picks up English quickly, thinks she has found a way out, circumstances beyond her control keep her trapped in her horrific situation, one that she refuses to accept.
Watching the film today, it’s hard to imagine that it’s Kelly’s only fiction movie; she continues to make documentaries, which have included A Cowhand’s Song, Rebels with a Cause, Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives, and Smitten, but the Hollywood system did not welcome her, much like Lalu was not welcomed in America. Kelly is in full command of the story, which is gorgeously photographed by Bobby Bukowski and keenly edited by Kenji Yamamoto, Kelly’s husband and longtime filmmaking partner, along with a vivid score by seven-time Emmy winner Gary Malkin. The camera loves Chao (Joy Luck Club, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine): Her deeply expressive eyes dominate the screen and envelop the viewer in heartfelt emotion. Oscar winner Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation.) is tender and warm as Charlie, channeling Jon Bon Jovi along the way.
Based on the true story of Chinese pioneer Lalu Nathoy, Thousand Pieces of Gold has been rereleased at just the right time — the digital restoration debuted in March 2019 at the Museum of the Moving Image — as it relates to such current hot-button issues as the #metoo movement, immigration, racism aimed specifically at the Chinese, human trafficking, and economic inequality. On April 29 at 8:00, there will be what should be a fascinating live panel discussion with Kelly, Yamamoto, Makepeace, Chao, and Cooper.