It’s 30 years old, but Thousand Pieces of Gold is still a fascinating look at servitude in 1880s America. Now in a 4K restoration, it’s coming to a virtual cinema near you.
Think ‘America in 1880’ and you may, like me, have visions of John Ford cowboys, arid plains, and lots of livestock. But Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold is a different kettle of fish.
The 1990 film has been given a beautiful 4K restoration from IndieCollect and is about to be available under the Kino Marquee banner, which creates ‘virtual cinemas’ in these lockdown times – by purchasing a ticket to watch online, the viewer supports their local art-house cinema as some of the revenue is diverted directly to them.
Thousand Pieces of Gold is based on a true story of a young woman from the north of China (Lalu, played by Rosalind Chao), whose impoverished father sells her to be married to be able to provide for the rest of his family. But instead of becoming a stranger’s wife in San Francisco, Lalu is sold on to a Chinese businessman in the gold area of Idaho. Lalu, however, decides she is going to belong to no man and sets about reclaiming her freedom.
The entire film revolves around Rosalind Chao’s assured performance, tracking Lalu’s journey from newly arrived innocent, out of her depth as she navigates the chauvinistic and largely male world into which she has been forced. Chao plays her with a steely core, someone who knows what she needs to do to reach her goal but who is also personable when required, someone to automatically feel positively about, and not because she is to be seen as a victim. Chao’s Lalu fights the label of victimhood all the way and quietly takes back control in ways such as choosing which clothes she wears and when.
Inevitably there comes a point when racism comes to the fore, and with the young, disillusioned gold workers eventually proclaiming “They’re not American. They should go home.”, the tide turns. Interesting that the idea of who is American – and who isn’t – is the prevalent motivation in 1880 too. How conveniently it is forgotten that Lalu and others like her had no choice in coming to ‘their’ country.
The bridge between the Chinese and Western characters is a fresh-faced Chris Cooper, whose character Charlie owns the bar in which the young western gold prospectors drink, and who also visits the Chinese store to receive acupuncture for an ailing shoulder. We may be more used to seeing Cooper as the grumpy father-figure these days but here, at the start of his film career, he’s the reserved and generally fair-minded Charlie, and is a delight to watch.
Thousand Pieces of Gold was a pleasant surprise. Of course, it packages Lalu’s travails into a perfectly-timed resolution, and the real truth may have likely been much messier, but the story is an interesting one and is deftly handled by Nancy Kelly to produce a film that tells Lalu’s story without over-romanticising.