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