If Dances With Wolves hadn't been a hit, it's doubtful the engrossing and grittily atmospheric 1,000 Pieces of Gold would be playing the Beach Theater this week.
1,000 Pieces of Gold, the true story of a Chinese woman who lived on her own terms in frontier America after being sold into slavery by her parents in China, was made long before Kevin Costner slipped on his buckskin.
But it took Costner's three-hour subtitled epic to convince distributors that audiences still are interested in new takes on the Old West.
1,000 Pieces of Gold, made for $1.8-million by director Nancy Kelly and editor/husband Kenji Yamamoto, is a dispassionate look at one of the more embarrassing footnotes of the West's settlement: the white man's treatment of Chinese laborers who helped build the railroads and work the mines for starvation wages.
The overt racism is observed by Lalu Nathoy, or China Polly, as she was called by miners of Warren's Diggens, Idaho, where Lalu (Rosaline Chao) was brought as the bride of the local saloon keeper.
This is well into screenwriter Anne Makepeace's adaptation of Ruthanne Lum McCunn's novel 1,000 Pieces of Gold. The book and movie recount Lalu's sale to a marriage broker by her father in drought-parched Northern China, Lalu's trip in chains to America in the hold of a ship, her purchase in San Francisco by a Chinese-American trader (Dennis Dun) and her arduous trek to Warren's Diggens where her husband, Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), puts her to work as a prostitute to recoup the $1,500 he paid for her.
Rosalind Chao gives a sturdy, strong-willed performance as Lalu, a Chinese sheep herder's daughter who refuses to sleep with white men and who eventually learns that slavery in 1880s America is abolished.
With the help of Hong King's business partner, Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper), who wins Lalu in a poker game, Lalu asserts herself as best she can in a town where her race and the status of women severely limit her freedom.
1,000 Pieces of Gold is set a generation after the gold rush peaked and more than a decade after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, when low-cost Chinese labor was regarded as a threat by an increasing number of Americans. (The Chinese Restriction Act, passed by Congress in 1882, ended America's open immigration policy.)
During the course of the story, Lalu is repeatedly hounded with racial epithets. She witnesses the lynching of a Chinese man and an uprising that forces all Chinese to flee Warren's Diggens for more tolerant communities.
Although the movie is hampered by its tiny budget and is occasionally sluggishly paced, 1,000 Pieces of Gold is an absorbing account of Lalu's triumph of dignity in a foreign land.
Kelly and Yamamoto, who previously made documentaries, steer clear of histrionics. Romance is downplayed. Lalu's loneliness and her grief for her lost homeland and family are not explored.
This is a notable omission, yet Chao's performance is so solidly tempered and the sweep of events is so tumultuous, that there is little time to contemplate the story's shortcomings.
Chao, best known as the Starship Enterprise's botanist on Star Trek _ The Next Generation, receives strong support from Michael Paul Chan as her greedy Chinese husband and Chris Cooper (Matewan) as Charlie, the gambler, Civil War veteran and Andersonville prison camp survivor who would gladly take Lalu as his wife if only she would have him.
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1,000 Pieces of Gold
Director: Nancy Kelly
Cast: Rosalind Chao, Chris Cooper, Michael Paul Chan, Dennis Dun
Screenplay: Anne Makepeace, based on the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
Rating: Not rated; violence
Running time: 105 minutes