Nancy Kelly really ought to have had a greater career directing narrative pictures. Her first effort brought her immediate but scattered praise. Some critics made bold claims that her style was reminiscent of the legendary John Ford. Her Western was one that embodied a strong, feminist individuality, a woman escaping a man’s world. Developed at the Sundance Lab, 1990’s Thousand Pieces of Gold garnered fair praise at festivals and quickly dropped off the map. A new restoration effort looks to right its placement in the canon of the feminist West, with IndieCollect and Kino Lorber Repertory partnering on a brilliantly handsome 4K transfer that ensures the film can have a digital afterlife.
The transfer brings the picture right to life. In the mountains of Idaho’s gold territory (largely shot in neighboring Montana), the scenery becomes the hero of the piece. The cool mountain blues stretch beyond the yellowed valleys and sing a song of freedom. The lovely backdrops cascade with resonance as our center star, Rosalind Chao, plays out her own emancipation story in the great American Northwest. She has been shipped from China and sold off as a slave, passed between men, finding no home nor optimism in the land of freedom. Even after America had done away with its formal slavery, a trade of servitude from the Asian territories remained common practice. Perhaps most shocking here, something Roger Ebert was sure to point out in his own piece, is that all of the Asian men in the picture are rigidly bad. The only good man is the white man: Chris Cooper, a gambler whom wins our lead character in a dirty bet. As Ebert points out, the picture is both “angry and romantic”, as the two bridge a relationship of trust and understanding, their love becoming a mutual kind of emancipation.
There is good reason to preserve the picture. First and foremost, it’s a woman director telling a woman’s story. Thousand Pieces of Gold is based on a mostly-true account of Polly Bemis, a young Chinese immigrant sold to slavery when her father’s farm failed in China, based on the book of the same name by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. It does a fine job of bringing the pages to screen. The cross-section of culture works best on screen when an Asian-infused soundtrack lifts itself from the American terrain and builds a separate and unique component of character. It’s a good job, how well the themes mesh and how its characters operate within them. A neatly watchable, if not entirely improbable, love story.
There is always a good reason to restore an independent movie. It’s important to ensure the history of our independent cinema — without the bankroll of the studio systems — remains preserved for future generations. There’s some exquisite in the reworking of bold Western pieces anyway. Getting the pristine image really counts for something in spaces so vast and awe-inspiring. It’s equally critical to ensure that we’re capturing women’s stories. Thousand Pieces of Gold is as good as it is underseen. It deserves whatever audience it may find in this second life. The representation and preservation of outsider stories is truly worth more than their weight in gold.