Make your Peace with the Devil
Directed by Nancy Kelly
Starring Rosalind Chao, Chris Cooper, Michael Paul Chan
Released April 26th, 1991
In 1880s China, a poor father sells his daughter into slavery. She finds herself being trafficked to America by a young man named Jim (Dennis Dun), who feels bad about the situation but has his own monetary motives for his deeds. Along their journey, Jim and the girl, Lalu (Rosalind Chao), become friendly. Jim wants to save up enough money to eventually buy Lalu’s freedom. All she wants is to return to her family in China.
In America, Lalu and other girls are stripped nude for the viewing of lecherous men and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Idaho saloon owner Hong King (Michael Paul Chan) purchases Lalu and renames her “Polly.” Lalu is shocked to discover Hong King bought her with the intention of making her his saloon’s latest prostitute. With the help of a knife, Lalu immediately lets it be known she will not be the “wife to a thousand men.”
Charlie, co-owner of the saloon, is kind to Lalu, but she distrusts him, as she distrusts all white demons. Charlie tells Lalu she doesn’t have it so bad. She’s got food, clothes, and a place to stay. Lalu reminds him that now she’s an indentured servant, working day and night to make enough money to pay the cost of her purchase back to Hong King, so that she may have a chance at freedom.
Given the demoralizing and dehumanizing circumstances of the story, this quiet film can make for a tough watch. But you’d do well to set aside the time to watch it, if only to marvel at the fiercely independent and assured performance of Rosalind Chao. Chao portrays Lalu as utterly confused, horrified, and angry about what is happening to her. Chao’s performance carries the weight of the picture perfectly. Lalu’s rare smiles light up the screen, a remarkable notion that this woman can find any happiness at all.
Chris Cooper plays Charlie as a wounded dog. He frequently retreats into the bottle to alleviate his pain with his station in life and his discomfort for how Lalu and the other Chinese people are treated. As the villainous Hong King, Michael Paul Chan cuts an imposing yet charismatic figure. A distressing story right from the jump, the movie maintains a somber tone throughout, thanks in part to a delicate score from Gary Malkin. Thousand Pieces of Gold is a moving portrait of human resilience, a worthwhile film that will inspire you to learn more about the plight of Chinese people brought by force to America in the later part of the 19th Century.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray boasts a 4k transfer scanned from the original 35 mm negative that brings Bobby Bukowski’s epic cinematography to vibrant life. Filmed in the wide-open spaces of Montana, Bukowski presents the landscape with a bright, washed-out tone that reinforces the harsh realities of Lalu’s life. The disc’s special features include audio from a half hour radio interview with director Nancy Kelly, during which she explains what compelled her to tell this particular story on film. Something that sets this release apart from other Kino Lorber discs is the inclusion of a booklet containing an essay about the making of the film by screenwriter Anne Makepeace. It is a nice bonus in the film’s packaging, and an insightful read that highlights the ridiculous difficulty women have getting films financed in Hollywood.