Classic Film Review: Rosalind Chao, Chris Cooper, an East-meets-West Western, “Thousand Pieces of Gold”

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Not many people saw “Thousand Pieces of Gold” when it hit theaters in 1991, although more saw it when it aired on the PBS indie cinema series “American Playhouse.”

It’s worth remembering and revisiting as an example of the ambition indie cinema once had. You couldn’t make a movie on your cell phone, with just actors and a sound mixer and a script. But you could make a Western on a shoestring, an original melodrama of scope and relevance — good enough to attract some of the best character actors working.

The regal Rosalind Chao took on a rare leading role for this period piece. TV’s “After M*A*S*H” was her biggest credit to date, “The Joy Luck Club” came a couple of years later.

She plays Lalu, a young shepherd in a nomadic family in the 1880s Mongolian steppes, “the North,” as people in China put it.  After three years with no rain, with their sheep dying off, her father abruptly sells her to a marriage broker.

Lalu is shipped off to America, where Chinese immigrants will pay a premium for a wife who isn’t one of the “white demons” who make up the majority of the U.S. dating pool.

Jimmy (Dennis Dun) is the sympathetic soul who buys Lalu, “who can’t even understand Cantonese,” at auction in San Francisco. “I am not your husband,” he tells a confused Lalu. Merely her escort to Oregon.

Leading his pack-train north, he starts teaching her the lingo and the wonders and ways of this new land.

“Learn English,” he lectures. “Start your own business. Carry a gun. Don’t let anyone push you around.”

But the man on the receiving end of this journey isn’t what she might have hoped. Hell, he isn’t even in “Oregon.” Hong King is “too OLD,” she whines, upon meeting him in Idaho. He (veteran character actor Michael Paul Chan) is a callous brute with certain expectations of her. And he is partners on a drinking establishment with hard-drinking Charlie (a very young future Oscar winner, Chris Cooper).

Hong King renames her  — “‘Polly’ is all the demons understand” for names, he grouses. “Forget about your family. You father SOLD you!”

But she cannot forget about them, or about Jimmy — who was kind and sweet. And she has a hard time ignoring/fending off the attentions of Charlie, who figures he’s just being sweet and all. He helps her with her English.

“Aye LEEV at de sah-LOON,” she learns. “No whore” is how she rejects the advances of the miners and other ruffians among the “white demons, ghosts” or “black demons” who give her the eye.

What follows is a romantic melodrama, a test of wills and a fish-out-of-water tale about adapting to a new world — one that has a long and difficult history of accepting “others,” especially Chinese.

Lalu’s odyssey has an easy familiarity about it, with just enough surprising twists included to keep it interesting.

Chao and Chan, Dun and Cooper make their characters compelling and complicated. The only caricatures are the bit parts surrounding them.

Director Nancy Kelly has yet to direct another feature, although she’s gotten a couple of documentaries made. She’s not quite early enough in the “Women Step Behind the Camera” story to be called a pioneer, not enough of a stylist to make us wince at a career smothered at birth.

Her great achievement here is in simulating 19th century Mongolia and the American West (basically the same location), putting flesh and blood people in those locales and telling a grounded story on a shoestring, making it look like an A-picture.

This newly restored IndieCollect is earning a virtual cinema re-release through BAM and The Gene Autry Museum and in select cities, a way to watch a good movie you almost certainly missed and support non-profit screening rooms.

It’s worth tracking down, especially if you’re a filmmaker just starting out with a cell-phone camera and a dream. You don’t HAVE to tell a story from the here and now, shot just down the street. If the script’s good, good actors will crawl over each other to help you tell an original, resonant story torn from history.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13

Cast: Rosalind Chao, Chris Cooper, Dennis Dun, Michael Paul Chann

Credits: Directed by Nancy Kelly, script by Anne Makepeace, based on the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. A Kino Lorber Virtual Cinema streaming release.

Running time: 1:45

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