Sunday, May 10, 2020

Thousand Pieces of Gold

Dang, am I disappointed that we're all locked down and the Brattle is showing this virtually rather than giving it a weekend on the big screen, because this film is beautiful and terrific and I wish I'd been able to see it from their front row rather than my recliner. They're hosting a virtual Q&A with director Nancy Kelly and screenwriter Anne Makepeace on Tuesday evening, which sounds quite worthwhile.

It's also one where the cast kind of surprised me in the best ways. I mostly know Rosalind Chao from Star Trek, and it gets me thinking about how strange show business can be, that she could do something this good as the star and just never have that sort of part again. She's worked steadily, but it's a heck of a thing. This also feels like the only thing I've seen Dennis Dun in aside from Big Trouble in Little China, which seems kind of crazy, since he's kind of critical to both. Meanwhile, I think this is the only time I've ever seen Michael Paul Chan with hair, and my brain had a hard time accepting Chris Cooper as ever having been this young.

Thousand Pieces of Gold

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, KinoNow via Roku)

It is sadly not surprising that Thousand Pieces of Gold is Nancy Kelly's only narrative feature, with just a few documentaries following in the thirty years since; it's a fine movie but women didn't always get a lot of second chances for anything other than immediate hits, and this wasn't one. It is, nevertheless, a terrific little movie whose honesty is often heartbreaking without ever being cynical.

It opens in 1880, with three years of drought devastating villages in northern China ultimately leading to one shepherd to sell his oldest daughter, telling Lalu (Rosalid Chao) to "serve your master or your husband" as she's loaded into a cart with three other women. That will be in a far off place - a boat takes her to San Francisco where "Jim" Li Pa (Dennis Dun) purchases her, only to tell her that he is only acting as an agent for another, and the boat to Oregon leaves in the morning. They bond on trail to Idaho, only for Jim to turn her over to Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), who means to have her work in the saloon he leases from Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper), a heavy-drinking gambler who nevertheless can be particular about what is and isn't legal when it suits him.

Though the cycle of Lalu (or "Polly", as the white and assimilated folks call her) discovering some sort of bright side to her situation only to be crushed again will continue through much of the film, the first half-hour or so has it in concentrated form, with Kelly and screenwriter Anne Makepeace (working from the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn) nevertheless showing great care in how they build Lalu up before the disappointment. They'll take a moment to show that she made friends during the journey, or let her show some excitement at how fancy her room for the night is. It's a technique that could simply be cruel, but is a little more; though for all that beauty and opportunity in the West is real rather than just bait for a trap, the filmmakers are able to break Lalu's heart again and again and have it hit the audience anew every time.

It's a testament that Rosalind Chao is able to make it hit home and feel new each time, capturing Lalu as initially young and inexperienced in this place's ways, especially surrounded by people who seem completely alien to her. She's really good at trying to understand rather than just letting English bounce off her, and portraying the relief that comes from the moments when you can feel like an intelligent adult amid a background of only being able to express raw emotion and broken English. Lalu develops nicely, and it's something of a joy to watch her not just mature, but how she becomes Chinese-American, and how her version of it is different from but related to that of the other immigrants .

The use of the men in the movie is in some ways just as important as what is being done with Lalu, and how in many ways it stands out from other films that would have the protagonist find love in a hostile territory: It makes them earn it, not just by proving themselves to Lalu but by collectively examining their expectations in a way that is remarkably non-transactional for this sort of movie. Lalu may be sold to start the movie but she can't be bought to finish it with either money or deed, and it's interesting to watch Chris Cooper and Dennis Dun roll all that around, sometimes briefly and sometimes over time, not saying anything directly but showing how hard but necessary it is for men to get out of their own heads. There's good work among the rest of the supporting cast too, with even Michael Paul Chan given a chance to make something out of the film's least sympathetic character.

On top of that, Thousand Pieces of Gold is an impressively produced film from the opening, where a dead sheep blending into the landscape encapsulates the world Lalu is coming from, to the finish. The production crew creates a small, dense western town whose every detail seems authentic, while Bobby Bukowski's cinematography captures the beauty of the unspoiled West without it often seeming showy - with a few exceptions, it's something that can be taken for granted but also something that keeps people from giving up. Kenji Yamamoto does similarly basic but effective work as editor, something perhaps enhanced by just how well Kelly and Makepeace do at slipping little bits of dialogue and use of the changing seasons to make it clear that Lalu and the rest have time to grow.

A new restoration is sort-of-kind-of playing theaters (most shut down as of this writing but a selection in the virtual screening rooms of several), and it looks and sounds excellent, good enough to be a revelation for a film that never got a proper DVD release. For better or worse, the ensuing decades have only brought its themes into sharper relief, making this film's return a welcome second chance that it should have had years ago.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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