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Friday Film Review: Thousand Pieces of Gold

Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)
Genre: Historical Western/Romance
Grade: B

Early last month, Karenmc contacted me about a movie she thought might make a good Friday Film Review called “Thousand Pieces of Gold.” After tracking down a VHS copy, I have to agree with her.

In 1880s China after years of drought, Lalu (Rosalind Chao) is sold by her father to a man he thinks will find her a husband. Instead she is transported to Chinatown in San Francisco then sold again to a Chinese pack driver who takes her to a mining town in Oregon. There she is to be the newest attraction in a saloon owned by Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper) and Hong King (Michael Paul Chan – perhaps better known now as Lt. Tao in “The Closer”).

China Polly, as she’s now called, is horrified at the fate that slowly dawns on her as she enters this rough hewed place filled with demons (white men). On the night that she’s sold for the first time, she shows the men what she’s made of by fighting them off with a knife and threatening to kill herself and haunt Hong King. Bemis intervenes and Polly begins to work off her passage money through hard labor in the saloon.

But as she works hard and learns English, Polly starts to understand that in this new world, it’s illegal for her to be a slave – though as Charlie reminds her, she really has no other place she could go then. But after a pivotal confrontation and game of poker between the two saloon owners, Polly leaves to live with Charlie and start working for herself. But as racial tensions escalate, will Polly and the other Chinese be allowed to stay. And will she ever give in to the feelings she’s starting to have for Charlie?

The story is loosely based on a real Chinese immigrant woman and is adapted from books I’ve seen called “Poker Bride” and “Thousand Pieces of Gold” (though that title also seems to have been used for another biographical book of a Chinese woman). In real life, China Polly was never called “Lalu” and she lived in Idaho instead of Oregon. Here the story has been romanced up a little though it’s still what I would call a more gritty western. Shot on an obvious shoe string budget, it still manages to convey the era well and has good performances from its lead actors.

The story pulls no punches and portrays the obstacles Polly must overcome. She’s supposed to be an ethnic Mongol which is a strike against her in China. She’s a woman – strike two in China. And both of them count against her in America. The film shows the lack of options for most women at that time and how hard Polly must work in order to support herself by any means other than on her back. However, it also shows how Polly eventually earns the respect of not only her fellow Chinese but also the whites who were initially set on exploiting her as well.

We also see how white Americas were willing to turn on the Chinese immigrants when the economy went sour. What I found really interesting is how long it takes Polly to even begin to think of Charlie in any romantic terms. For over a year, to her he was little better than a nicer white demon than the average white man she dealt with and even as the film was almost over, their relationship was still iffy. Their romance is shown with little sentimentality and those waiting for a payoff clinch backed by soaring violins will wait in vain. Still, in the end, I think the film is stronger for not resorting to the obvious.

Right now finding this film will be the biggest hurdle to liking it. I finally found a reasonably priced VHS copy at half.com and have seen a DVD-R recording for sale. Email me if you want specifics. It’s also been uploaded at youtube in 11 parts. Check it out for a nicely done western from a POV other than a white cowboy.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

12 Comments

  1. Bonnie Dee
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 07:00:58

    I snagged this great movie on my DVR from the Hallmark channel a while ago and burned a copy I liked it so well. At the time I’d almost finished writing a story set in San Francisco about a Chinese woman who comes to America to be a bride only to find out she’s been sold to a tong boss to be a prostitute. Escapes, is taken in by a Yankee storekeeper, cross-cultural love ensues. This book, Captive Bride, will come out at Carina Press next spring. I want to state that I was NOT influenced by this movie which I watched after I’d already made my hero a Civil War veteran who’d spent time in Andersonville prison. It’s always frustrating as a writer to see a component of your plot in another book or a movie.

    Anyway, this really is a good one and worth hunting down.

  2. Jayne
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 07:09:44

    @Bonnie Dee:

    It's always frustrating as a writer to see a component of your plot in another book or a movie.

    But also proof that you’ve got a good idea! It’s also nice to know that more books with Asian characters are in the pipeline.

  3. Susan
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 10:16:58

    I saw this movie in the theater! If you like this you might want to check out The Ballad of Little Jo, also an alternative western. Not so much a romance, but interesting nonetheless.

  4. Jayne
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 18:19:38

    @Susan: Oh, I hadn’t realized this film was shown in theaters. I thought it was a TV production.

    I’ve seen bits and pieces of “The Ballad of Little Jo.” I think it used to be shown a lot on come cable channels.

  5. Susan
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 22:49:15

    @ Jayne: I was living in NYC, it was shown in art theaters there. BTW rented Sita Sings the Blues on your recommendation; we loved it!

  6. Jayne
    Sep 18, 2010 @ 06:43:07

    @Susan: Another film you might want to check out with this kind of Western x Chinese theme is “Broken Trail” which I’ll probably do a review of at some point.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed “Sita Sings the Blues!” I will admit to some disappointment that the review garnered so little response as I was sure more people would have seen it by then. Maybe more people have gone back in the interim and watched it and (hopefully) enjoyed it as you did. Thanks for letting me know.

  7. Susan
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 09:02:26

    My husband and I liked it so much we actually bought the DVD and soundtrack. We have recommended it to various friends, or made them watch with us. Not long after your review, while it was still on our Netflix list, it was shown on PBS in NY. So we watched it there, then on DVD. We love the music too!

  8. Kerry
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 11:57:40

    It’s also recently been on Netflix streaming–perhaps if enough people are interested they will bring it back. Actually a movie Jayne reviewed in January, “Plunkett & Macleane” is streaming on there now.

  9. Jayne
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 19:05:08

    @Kerry: I have “Gold” in my Netflix ‘saved’ queue just for that reason. I actually have a lot of movies saved that way that I already own just so maybe they’ll make the effort to get DVD copies or stream them.

  10. E.D. Walker
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 17:42:19

    This is off-topic but I had a movie that I thought you might like for the Friday Review: Something New.

    It’s an interracial romance starring Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. It also deals with issues of class because she’s a high-powered accounting exec and he’s a landscape designer.

    It’s a really sweet romance that deserves to be more wildly known I think.

  11. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 18:39:08

    @E.D. Walker: Thanks for the rec. I’ll check it out.

  12. susan klee
    Oct 02, 2010 @ 12:57:31

    @Jayne:
    i’m teaching English to a group of immigrant professionals — including a woman from Mongolia — I want to find this film for the group — can I get it on DVD?? if so, could you help with some hints? Many thanks.

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