It should come as no surprise that the ‘90s independent film boom wasn’t as giving to female directors. While the Tarantinos, Linklaters and Soderberghs of America went on to become brand names and shape contemporary Hollywood film-making, buzz-y women directors from the era like Allison Anders, Mary Harron, Julie Dash, Kimberly Peirce and countless others were eventually pushed into television work or sidelined altogether.
And then there’s Nancy Kelly. After making an acclaimed short documentary about cowgirls, Kelly, a former ranch hand herself, managed to scrape together financing for her ambitious feature debut, a period adaptation of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold. With support from the Sundance Institute, she mounted her vision of 1800s frontier America in the style of the classic Western films she grew up on, set in an authentic Northwest mining town and starring a talented cast of character actors. Upon its release in 1991, it garnered favorable reviews from major critics and comparisons to the work of cinematic legends like John Ford.
But just as quickly as Kelly rode on to the scene, she vanished, never able to convince producers to invest in any further ideas, and eventually only picking up her camera sporadically to make the odd documentary. Thousand Pieces of Gold also wound up slipping into obscurity as the Western genre became synonymous with slicker, high-octane studio films throughout the decade. Now, a full thirty years after its initial debut, Kino Lorber is releasing a new 4K restoration of Kelly’s film, finally giving cinephiles a chance to rediscover this lost piece of female-oriented Americana.
Before arriving in the so-called land of opportunity, Thousand Pieces of Gold actually begins in the vast northern wilderness of China, as young Lalu (Rosalind Chao, who would break out in The Joy Luck Club a couple years later), living in poverty with her family, is sold into indentured servitude and taken to America. Ending up in a small Idaho mining town, Lalu is bought by a Chinese immigrant businessman named Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), who dreams of one day owning the village and all the gold within it. When he plans to pimp out Lalu (who he renames “China Polly”) to the town’s white miners, she violently rebukes him, instead working out a deal pay him back what it cost for her through odd jobs around town and save enough to eventually move back home. But as she tries to keep her head down and temporarily adapt to this strange new land, the local saloon manager, Charlie (Chris Cooper, in his second film role after John Sayles’s Matewan), reaches out to offer unexpected kindness, causing Lalu to rethink her whole situation.
By having the central character be both female and non-white, Kelly subverts the usual regressive Wild West stereotypes that have always burdened the genre, placing us firmly in Lalu’s shoes as she deals with constant and unbridled attacks of misogyny and racism from the grungy “white demon” townsfolk. And instead of resorting to violence and macho posturing, the narrative (from an adapted screenplay by Anne Makepeace) pivots towards romance, as Lalu and Charlie take tentative steps towards a connection. But even this setup is flipped, with the realities of men’s assumed ownership of women shown to be as deep-rooted as any basic survival instinct. Yet throughout it all, Kelly gives us an independent female protagonist that is firm in her beliefs no matter what is imposed on her.
Not everything in Thousand Pieces of Gold ages perfectly. The film has a touch of that early-‘90s prestige picture stodginess and suffers from some generically maudlin dialogue that seems lifted from a lower-tier television special (it was, in fact, co-produced by the former PBS-owned company American Playhouse). It could also be argued that this is essentially a white person’s version of the Chinese experience, glossing over the true ugliness that a woman like Lalu would have faced in order to make it palatable for American audiences.
Despite these issues, Kelly pumps her film full of so much heart that it’s hard not to be swept up in it. Clearly identifying with Lalu’s outsider status, Kelly fashions a character that is endlessly sympathetic, while creating impressive detail-rich compositions of the American frontier landscape to rival films with ten times the budget. You can even trace a line from Thousand Pieces of Gold through to the minimalist alternative Westerns of Kelly Reichardt, another filmmaker who found short-lived early success in the ‘90s before finally receiving wider acclaim a couple of decades later (musician and Old Joy star Will Oldham also appears here as a young miner, furthering the connection).
Could Nancy Kelly make a similar comeback now that her debut feature has been revived for all to see? According to a recent interview with the director, she has another project that’s been sitting on the back burner for years. With the promise shown here, I’d love to see what she has in store.
Thousand Pieces of Gold is now streaming through Kino Marquee, followed by a DVD and Blu-ray release on May 26.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Drama, Romance, Western
- Release Date: 4/24/2020
- Directed by: Nancy Kelly
- Starring: Beth Broderick, Chris Cooper, David Hayward, Dennis Dun, Michael Paul Chan, Rosalind Chao, Will Oldham
- Produced by: Kenji Yamamoto, Nancy Kelly
- Written by: Anne Makepeace, Ruthanne Lum McCunn
- Studio: Kino Lorber
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