Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s another revival circulating as part of the revenue-sharing streaming scheme during the pandemic. Kino Lorber and Northwest Film Forum team split the proceeds for the 30-year anniversary run of Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, a Western that did very well (certainly it did well in Seattle, where it seems to have opened some months before the rest of the country) during its initial run. My review first appeared in the Herald on April 26, 1991.
Thousand Pieces of Gold
It’s probably fortunate for the makers of Thousand Pieces of Gold that their little movie should come out in the wake of that cultural phenomenon known as Dances with Wolves. For this movie is also a new look at the old West, via a little-heard-from perspective.
In this case, the perspective is that of a young Chinese woman who is essentially sold into slavery by her starving family. She is taken away to America, where she is again sold in the San Francisco Red Light district and trundled away to an Idaho mining town, where her new owner runs a saloon and bordello.
Her name is Lalu (played by Rosalind Chao), although “it’s easier for the white demons” to call her Polly. She reveals herself as a singular person almost immediately: refusing to be a prostitute, she forces her “husband” (Michael Paul Chan) to allow her a certain autonomy, though she is still essentially a slave. A Chinese cowboy (Dennis Dun) loves her and wants to buy her away. A white man, Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper), is also deeply moved by her. Eventually Polly finds her own way through this world; gains her freedom, and comes to terms with her dream of returning to China.
This is based on a true story, and it is one of those amazing pockets of Americana that too infrequently see the light of movies. Aside from its obvious interest as a cross-cultural tale, the film does remarkabIy well as a portrait of western life. The political currents of the small mining town, the racial hatred (and sometimes sympathy), the haggling over poker games, is all beautifully drawn. And cinematographer Bobby Bukowski has gotten a fine, straightforward sense of the town and the country that surrounds it (the film was shot in Montana).
Initially, the white demons look as though they may be drawn too broadly: They resemble grungy cowpokes from Henry Weinhard beer commercials, spitting in the street and muttering things like, “Lookee what we got here,” when they spot the exotic new arrival.
But director Nancy Green and screenwriter Anne Makepeace reveal complexities even among the mostly anonymous miners. Some are good, some bad, some just along for the ride.
The center of the story is Polly, and she is given strong life, as befits a remarkable historical person. In many ways the most intriguing character is Bemis, the white man who seems to have come to this town to drink and disappear. At first glance, he’s just another westerner, at ease with the idea that Polly would be sold into prostitution and that he will waste his life in the wilderness.
Meeting Polly changes them both, and Bemis reveals himself as far more complicated than he appeared, more than he knew himself, probably. Thousand Pieces of Gold is many things, but at bottom it is the story of two isolated people coming together.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.