Despite its low budget and lack of superstar names, THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD is an epic motion picture, and one of the best Westerns to come along in several years. Rosalind Chao, a regular on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," turns in a searingly memorable performance as Lalu Nathoy, a remarkably courageous and extremely iron-willed young Chinese woman...read more
Despite its low budget and lack of superstar names, THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD is an epic motion picture, and one of the best Westerns to come along in several years. Rosalind Chao, a regular on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," turns in a searingly memorable performance as Lalu Nathoy, a
remarkably courageous and extremely iron-willed young Chinese woman determined to keep her dignity and self-esteem intact.
Based on a fascinating true story, the film opens in northeast China, circa 1880, where a frightened Lalu is being sold into slavery by her despairing, poverty-stricken father. Taken in chains across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, she's promptly auctioned off to a Chinese trader known as Jim
(Dennis Dun). Lalu slowly falls in love with Jim, whose Chinese name is Li Po and who, eight years earlier, had arrived in the US as a virtual slave-laborer for the railroad: he was an indentured worker who eventually worked off his debt and earned his freedom. Though Jim apparently yearns to
return Lalu's affection, he is weak in the face of what he perceives to be his duty: namely, the transportation of Lalu from San Francisco to the isolated mining town of Warren's Diggens, Idaho, where she is to work as a prostitute for Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), the local would-be entrepreneur
and saloon manager, the man who gave Jim the money to purchase a Chinese slave. Hong King's plans for Lalo include exploiting her as an exotic change-of-pace from the town's white whores.
Unwilling to permit her body to be used or abused by the rough-and-rowdy mining camp drunkards, Lalu contemplates suicide before fate intervenes in the form of Charlie (Chris Cooper), the saloon's actual owner, whose admiration and respect for Lalu commences to grow from the moment he observes
the way she handles herself with the first burly man imposed on her by Hong King. Sensing her fierce determination not to be a whore, Charlie gives Lalu tips on how to save herself from her seemingly hopeless fate. Following a confrontation, Hong King, who is Lalu's legal husband, is forced to
admit that a live cleaning and scrubbing woman is better than a dead Chinese whore, and he finally grants Lalu her wish to work off her debt via hard labor.
Charlie's fondness for Lalu blossoms into deep devotion, though it is to be a very long time before Lalu returns Charlie's affection. Not only does she still imagine herself in love with Jim, whom she sees every time business brings him back briefly to the mining camp, but she continues to dream
of earning enough money for passage back to her homeland. Through sheer grit, incredibly hard labor and living daily by her wits, Lalu succeeds in setting up housekeeping in her own cabin while simultaneously fending off both actual and threatened violence triggered by the bigotry and xenophobia
of the camp's gang of unwashed white miners.
Charlie seems destined to lose Lalu forever when, her mind made up, she begins the long journey back to the Pacific coast and home. But something happens to Lalu at the eleventh hour, an incident that makes her realize just how much Charlie has come to mean to her and--in effect--where her true
home really is.
Documentarian Nancy Kelly makes a stunning theatrical directorial debut with this splendid film, co-produced with her film-editor husband, Kenji Yamamoto. Even though the film reportedly cost less than $2 million, it frequently has the look of a much more expensive and sweeping film. There are
shades of the grandeur of a classic John Ford-style Western, even though much of this film (unlike Ford's frequent spectacular vistas in Monument Valley) is played out in confined, intimate quarters: the dingy saloon or the dank, dark back room where Lalu is forced to stay and, initially, receive
her unwashed paying customers. When the picture does open up, the scenery is heart-wrenchingly magnificent, thanks to cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, who never fails to make the best possible use of the gorgeous Montana wilderness that serves as both northern China and Idaho.
This true-life Western-romance, unquestionably, is one of the best features in recent release, thanks primarily to the vivid realization of the central character of Lalu as so brilliantly interpreted by Rosalind Chao, and by the sterling performances contributed by Chris Cooper, Dennis Dun,
Michael Paul Chan and others. Very special plaudits go also to Anne Makepeace for her satisfyingly rich and marvelously intelligent screenplay, based on the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations.)
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