Director Nancy Kelly’s critically acclaimed western drama is now available for viewing in “virtual cinemas.”
Nearly three decades after its original theatrical run, Nancy Kelly’s critically acclaimed Thousand Pieces of Gold has been given a colorful 4K restoration for a long-overdue re-release courtesy of Kino Lorber Repertory. Unfortunately, because most movie theaters currently are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the re-release has been limited to streaming on “virtual cinemas.” But you know what? You can’t keep a great film down — even during a lockdown. And while you’re homebound, you might actually better appreciate the company of the film’s charismatic lead players, Rosalind Chao (The Joy Luck Club, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and C&I reader favorite Chris Cooper (Lonesome Dove, August: Osage County).
Adapted by screenwriter Anne Makepeace from the 1981 novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which in turn was inspired by the real-life experiences of 19th-century Chinese-American pioneer Polly Bemis, Thousand Pieces of Gold was shot on various locations in Montana, and had its world premiere at the 1990 San Francisco International Film Festival.
The title refers to the price paid one morning in 1880 when a desperate farmer in famine-stricken northern China sells his adolescent daughter, Lalu (Chao), to a marriage broker. Lalu is summarily shipped off to San Francisco, where she is purchased by Jim (Dennis Dun), the eager-to-assimilate agent of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), an even more coldly pragmatic Chinese immigrant. King operates a saloon in the Idaho mining town of Warren’s Diggens, and he wants to offer the local “white demons” something more exotic than beer and whiskey. Lalu, renamed China Polly by her new “owner,” is expected to work as a prostitute.
But Polly refuses to be exploited in such a way, and has the gumption to back up her protests with a knife. Angry, but also a little impressed, King forces her to work as his personal slave, to pay off the cost of her purchase. Polly turns out to be a worker of indefatigable energy and endless resourcefulness. She quickly earns the respect, and slowly wins the love, of the one white man in town who fully understands what it means to be a prisoner: Charlie (Cooper), a taciturn Civil War veteran who survived the horrors of Andersonville.
A native of North Adams, Massachusetts, director Nancy Kelly earned her spurs by more or less talking her way into employment as a California ranch hand during the early 1980s — despite her complete and total lack of qualifications for the gig — and drew upon that experience while making two award-winning documentaries. Thousand Pieces of Gold was her first — and, so far, only — credit as a director of dramatic features. According to the Kino Lorber press notes:
“Although Kelly’s career as a movie director stalled — the victim of sexism that stymies the career of so many women — she continued to direct documentary films, including Rebels with a Cause, Downside UP, Smitten, and Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives. She is currently developing When We Were Cowgirls, a feminist adventure story loosely based on her own experiences as a ranch hand.”
We had the pleasure of speaking with Kelly a few days ago about her life and work. What follows are highlights from our conversations, edited for continuity and length.
Cowboys & Indians: OK, we have to ask something right off the bat. Just how does one talk their way into a ranch hand job with no practical experience in that area? How on earth could you pad your resume like that?
Nancy Kelly: [Laughs] Well, after college, my first job was as a health educator. And I got hired by the University of Massachusetts — like, the party school of America — to write and produce five dramatic films about responsible drinking. And the filmmaker that they hired to work with me, Gwen Clancy — she and I just became great friends. And to this day, she is one of those people who always knows how to get what she wants. One day, here we are in Massachusetts, and she announces, “Before I get too old, I want to work on a cattle ranch.”
And before I knew it, she was in California, looking for a cattle ranch. Now, she was a Wellesley graduate. And her resume did her no good when she was looking. There were two magazines where they advertised for help on ranches, and she said, “They never were looking for anything that I had.” But eventually — I don't know how — she conned her way into the California Farm Bureau, and got a list of ranches, and got herself on an open range cattle ranch on the border of California, Oregon and Nevada.
C&I: And then…?
Kelly: We corresponded by audiocassette, and she sent me this tape where she said something like, “Hey, Nance, I’m on a ranch, and the horses gallop over rocks as big as footballs. The biggest footballs.”
C&I: And that was the selling point for your career change?
Kelly: Yeah. I quit my job right away. My parents were out of their minds. They were sure I was going to die, and they wouldn’t be able to afford bury me. And I just went out there, Honestly, I had never even ridden a horse before, so she taught me. But it was like Gwen’s school of hard knocks. Day one, she gets me into the saddle and just gallops off. I didn’t fall off, so I learned how to ride. We were there for three years — more than three years — and I got to where I could ride and rope. And after a while, people started to think of us as good hands. You know?
C&I: You also learned quite a bit about filmmaking from Gwen, right?
Kelly: She had the idea to make a documentary about the lives of those people we worked with. So, yes, not only did I learn how to ride, I learned how to make a film.
C&I: Your documentaries A Cowhand’s Song and Cowgirls were well-received and won awards. What inspired you to make your transition to directing a dramatic feature?
Kelly: I was in Sun Valley, Idaho, while I was touring with Cowgirls. And on my way out to the airport, I saw where the local bookstore had just set up a table. And of course, it was like all Western stuff. But what struck me was the cover of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel Thousand Pieces of Gold. I still remember looking at that, because there was this photograph of Polly Bemis in her older years. And I remember looking at it, thinking, “I didn’t know there were Chinese women in the Gold Rush.” So I bought it, and I read it while I had a long layover. And when I read the whole thing, my reaction was just like, wow, this could be a movie. Because she was such a compelling character, and because of what she did. That’s really what mattered to me — it was a Western story, and it was also about a Chinese woman, and her oppression, and the way that she just empowered herself.
C&I: But it took you and Kenji Yamamoto, your husband and filmmaking partner, more than six years to obtain financing for the film. Was that because it wasn’t viewed as a very commercial project?
Kelly: I remember I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and there was a Hollywood agent who used to come up every year. And I knew her because I used to work in the screenwriting program there. I mean, I had attended it as a writer, but then I would go up and help with just the mechanics of that program, so I felt like I knew her. And I showed her the book, and she kind of looked at it. She said, “A period piece with a Chinese woman in the lead? What, are you crazy?”
Kelly: And then I remember after the script was pretty advanced, and [Anne makepeace and I] had been through the Sundance Institute, I was trying to get the money, and I met with some guy in one of the highly regarded independent distribution companies. And he just kind of said, “This is girl meets boy. If it was boy meets girl, I could see it.” Well, there I was, with a big folder of location photos and stuff in my lap. And I remember — I didn’t have the words to tell him, “Yes, it’s girl meets boy. That’s the point!” I just thought that he was so ignorant, I didn’t even want to be in the same room with him. And I was pretty hot-headed. So I just folded up all my stuff, and I walked out to the elevator.
The funny thing is, years later, when Kenji and I met with Kino Lorber when they were interested in acquiring the film, one of the first things they told us was, “Your film has these marketing pluses.” Number one of the list was, female director. And number two was, female in the lead. Things have changed — a lot. And I think it’s great that, this time around, it isn’t being perceived as, “Oh, she did well for a girl.”
C&I: You were able to find two fantastically talented lead actors, Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper, back when they were relatively unknown. Cooper really only had John Sayles’ 1987 drama Matewan to his credit at the time…
Kelly: Yes, but you know what? Among independent filmmakers, because of Matewan, everybody knew who he was. And when Lora Kennedy, the casting director, and I sat down for our first meeting, the first words out of her mouth were not, “Hi, how are you?” It was like, “Chris Cooper is Charlie!” I mean, that was what the world was like for independent filmmakers back then at Sundance. There weren’t that many of us, and it was a really close community. And I was so thrilled when Chris said that he would do it.
C&I: Rosalind Chao has appeared in several movies and TV series since starring in Thousand Pieces of Gold. But back when you cast her— well, she was only slightly better known than Cooper, right?
Kelly: Again, Lora Kennedy just had her finger on the pulse of the Asian actors and actresses out there. I mean, she brought all these people in, but I think she had a really good feeling about Rosalind, because we saw Rosalind in the morning of the very first day of casting. And I had never heard of her. But when she came in — well, she had gotten her mother to teach her one of the scenes, the audition scenes, in Mandarin, because her mother spoke Mandarin. And so, she came in, and she was like, “I want to do the scene in Mandarin.” And Lora and I were like, “Oh, no, no. That's okay.” And she was very charming and gentle about it, but she just kept saying, “Oh, come on, I really want to do it this way.” And Lora was like, “What am I going to do? I won’t understand what she's saying.” And Rosalind just said, “When I stop talking, then you say what you want.”
And really, nobody ever reached the level of perfection that Rosalind did for that role on that first day of casting. I think we had auditions for two or three days in L.A., and then we went to New York. And somebody sent us a tape from Taipei, and another one from London. But Kenji and I just kept thinking, “Nobody's as good as Rosalind.” And I love it that she says Thousand Pieces of Gold made all the difference for her in her career.
You can access Thousand Pieces of Gold through the “virtual cinema” of your choice here.