(director: Nancy Kelly; screenwriters: Anna Makepeace/novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn; cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski; editor: Kenji Yamamoto; music: Gary Remal Malkin; cast:  Rosalind Chao (Lalu/Polly), Chris Cooper (Charlie Bemis), Dennis Dun (Jim), Michael Paul Chan (Hong King), Will Oldham (Miles), Jimmie F. Skaggs (Jonas); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nancy Kelly/Kenji Yamamoto; Hemdale Home Video; 1990-in English and Chinese, with English subtitles when necessary)

“Not a great dramatic film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The former ranch hand and actress turned director, who later becomes a documentarian, Nancy Kelly  (“Downside Up”), adapts the story from the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The screenplay is written by Anna Makepeace. The low-budget indie (shot for $2 million) decently tells the gripping true tale of Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy. It played on the PBS indie cinema series “American Playhouse.”

Lalu (Rosalind Chao) is a young shepherd in a nomadic family in the 1880s Mongolian steppes. Her impoverished father sells her to a marriage broker, whereby she is sent to America, where Chinese immigrants looking for a Chinese wife will pay a broker to get them someone to marry.

At an auction in San Francisco she is bought by the nice guy slave trader Jim (Dennis Dun), a Chinese pack-mule operator, who speaks no Chinese. But he somehow communicates to the confused Lalu that he’s only her escort to her husband and not her husband. His sound advice to her is: “To learn English, Start your own business and Carry a gun.” She develops a crush on him and is disappointed that he leaves her so suddenly after delivering her to her husband. The husband who bought her is from a mining town in Idaho. He’s a brutish older Chinese man, named Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), who is partners in a saloon with the white guy Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper). Hubby renames her Polly, and plans to use her as an exotic prostitute. But the girl resists. Meanwhile the gruff Charlie acts nice and teaches her English at the saloon, as she wards off the miners by telling them she’s no whore and wards off her hubby by brandishing a knife when he tries to force her to be a whore (though he will brutally rape her at one point).

With Charlie’s help, she manages on her own and starts her own laundry business.

The rest of the tale is how she adapts to her New World and is able to marry Charlie when he has enough money to buy her at an auction Hong King runs when he finally realizes she won’t give him what he wants.

She is still remembered today as a frontier woman who survived her ordeal and adjusted to her new country despite all the racism shown against the Chinese and overcoming her slave-like forced marriage.

The lead actors keep things real with solid performances (Rosalind Chao gives a sparkling performance), and the location shots give you a feeling of the isolation felt in the mining town. Everything seems authentic. But it’s not a great dramatic film. What it offers is a good feminist viewpoint into the narrative and points out that even if slavery was abolished by Lincoln it still took place underground in the Chinese community.

The title refers to how much it costs to buy her freedom.

      Pieces of Gold (1990)