The cinematic landscape has changed dramatically over the last few months, leading distributors and cinemas to innovate change in order the survive while people are away from physical cineplexes. One such venture is Kino Marquee, a virtual cinema initiative set-up by the film distributor Kino Lorber to help independent theaters closed because of COVID-19. This virtual approach to cinema has allowed for the release of a number of forgotten treasures, including Nancy Kelly’s little-seen 1991 western Thousand Pieces of Gold. The film recently received a 4k restoration by IndieCollect, an organization dedicated to the preservation of American independent films, and looks spectacular. It’s hard to believe that this complex, visually dramatic, culturally nuanced and well-acted film isn’t better known, and it’s heartening to see it so beautifully restored.

Thousand Pieces of Gold tells the dramatic story of Lalu (Rosalind Chao), a Chinese woman who is sold by her father and taken to the American West in the 1880s. Though slavery had been outlawed at this point, Asian people were enslaved for years in the American West, often disguised by their slavers as laborers, brides and indentured servants. Lalu makes the voyage from China to California where she is sold at what is basically a slave market to a “wife trader” named Jim (Dennis Dun). Jim promptly sells Lalu to Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), a Chinese immigrant who lives and works as a wealthy merchant in an isolated Idaho mining outpost.

When Lalu arrives in Hong King’s Idaho backwater, she discovers that the merchant doesn’t want a wife; he wants an “exotic” prostitute to work in the grimy saloon he runs with his white partner Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper). Though sheltered and used to doing what she is told, this is too far for Lalu, and she decides to fight back. A number of twists and turns follow, and the story – based on 1981 novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn and adapted for the screen by Anne Makepeace – has a number of satisfying, crowd-pleasing moments while still remaining true to the horror and hopelessness of a woman in Lalu’s situation. Known in town as “China Polly” because the white people can’t figure out how to pronounce her name, Lalu tries to gain some semblance of independence, but is constantly under the power of a number of men.

Chao gives a ferocious performance, a meticulous blend of innocence, grit and heart, and Kelly is wise to allow much of the story to be told through her face and movement. And Cooper, who eventually turns out to be Lalu’s complicated love interest, is pitch perfect as the burdened, alcoholic Charlie, who is better than the men around him but still treats women as property. Cooper, fresh off the iconic television adaptation of “Lonesome Dove,” is the perfect Western leading man, complex and ruggedly handsome, and though his film career wouldn’t really flourish for another decade it is easy to see his incredible talent here.

Thousand Pieces of Gold was a commercial disappointment and Kelly hasn’t made a narrative feature since. This is so disappointing, as her film is a western in the truest sense of the drama, one that shows the vast American landscape for what it really was. Though it is often seen as a space of freedom and individuality, it, like the rest of America, was built by slaves, and with nonwhite women often suffering worst of all under the ownership of violent men. Though the film is also a love story, Kelly doesn’t soften Charlie’s edges, and Lalu’s triumph is one with a shadow; though she gains some semblance of freedom and feels genuine love for Charlie, she is not in a place or time that allow her to be a free woman or equal partner in their relationship. If Thousand Pieces of Gold had come out today for the first time, it would surely have gathered a number of accolades and Rosalind Chao would become a bonafide superstar. As things stand, we can still hope that new eyes will discover this gem now, and those involved in its production will finally get the credit they richly deserve.

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