BY AMANDA MOSES &
Often times film festivals are concerned with fresh movies that break new ground in terms of storytelling, acting, and or cinematography. However, why do we so easily forget the importance of the motion pictures that came before, especially the pieces that were so ahead of their time they did not receive the recognition they deserved upon release, films like Thousand Pieces of Gold.
This title may not be familiar to you, and this is through no fault of your own. Thousand Pieces of Gold was directed by Nancy Kelly in 1989 and funded through backers she and her husband—producer Kenji Yamamoto—contacted with their idea for the film, and although the shooting completed the same year that filming commenced, it was not released until 1991. Even then the narrative based off the novel of the same name seemed to be so avant-garde that people, unfortunately, were not ready for the themes it presented. Thankfully, with the help of IndieCollect, it has been beautifully restored in 4K for a new generation to enjoy as one of Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) headline attractions.
To put it plainly, the film looked stunning—colors pop, details are crisp, and perhaps the most impressive endorsement of this new restoration is that it brought a few tears to director Kelly’s eyes, seeing her pioneering movie in its newly remastered form. With all this talk of Thousand Pieces of Gold being such a radical movie, what exactly is it about?
The narrative focuses on an Asian, female lead Lalu played by Rosalind Chao, a facet that was, at the time, and, sadly, still is uncommon today. Opening in China, we are drawn into a poor village where native farmers struggle to survive on the little food and money they have. With barely enough income to live, Lalu’s father makes the horrible decision to sell her, that’s right sell her to human traffickers. Here she is cast aboard a ship to the United States, where she is then forced to work in a saloon within an Idaho mining town. It is through this boondock Lalu experiences ups and downs as she yearns to return to her birthplace. Throughout the feature we explore themes on racism, immigration, and the discovery of what the concept of home truly means to an individual. These subtexts were important in 1991, and yet seemingly even more fitting today.
As special honorees at this year’s QWFF, Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto were presented with the Spirit of Queens Award before the screening. After the event culminated, Kelly spoke with the Spring Creek Sun concerning her feelings on the film’s revival and the movie-making process.
Spring Creek Sun (SCS): How does it feel being honored at the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF)?
Nancy Kelly (NK): I live in San Francisco, so I woke up to a text from Sandra Schulberg (who runs IndieCollect, a non-profit organi-zation that focuses on revitalizing American independent films and a board member from the QWFF) telling me about the award. I was so thrilled because this film is a digital restoration, and it hasn’t won an award in a long time. I remember calling Sandra and telling her, “It’s not every morning you wake up to find out that you have won the Spirit of Queens Award.”
SCS: What did it feel like watching your 35mm film restored in 4K?
NK: Katha Cato (QWFF Executive Director) asked me if I was alright because I was trying to hold back the tears. This is a big screen [at the Museum of Modern Image (MOMI) where the film was shown], and it looked stunning. It looked beautiful. There are things that happen-ed in film that you just kind of accepted because film looked way better than video. But there was grain and a little bit of weaving, and the subtitles were redone so that it’s crisp. The subtitles did not look very good in the original. I was just having a hard time breathing [after watching the restoration at the MOMI.]
SCS: Has your husband, the producer, Kenji Yamamoto seen the restoration?
NK: We screened it in California, but I don’t know this screen feels even bigger.
SCS: What is it like working in the film industry with your significant other?
NK: Well, let’s see. Kenji is very light-hearted—an eternal optimist. He is always so happy, and some of my friends say that’s because he is so in love with me. We have con-tests of who could tell the best joke of the day, and who tells the first good joke of the day. Sometimes it’s trying but not often. We really have a good time together. He is a true artist. He went to the San Francisco Art Institute to study print making and painting, and then went on to do film making. It was truly experimental film-making at that time. The distribution part of Thousand Pieces of Gold was so hard finding somebody who could believe they could make money [from a film] with those elements that I almost left the film business. But he just kept encouraging me that the film world, the art world, just doesn’t make any sense, and as long as you can get along with that, you’ll be okay. I mean, the reason I am still a film maker is because of his optimism. I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t go to art school. My degree is in Public Health Education. I didn’t under-stand what is meant to be a filmmaker. Filmmakers are artists, and you can’t expect that anything is going to make sense.
SCS: The film breaks a lot of barriers by placing an Asian ac-tress in the lead and has a very unique premise for its time. What made you want to tell that specific story?
NK: I had made a couple of documentaries in the West, and one was called Cowgirls. I had been a cow-girl myself, a ranch hand when I was a younger woman. I literally made my living driving cattle. I broke horses, I could rope, and I was a good knife thrower. I thought I knew the American West, but then I picked up this novel called Thousand Pieces of Gold, which the film was adapted from, and I realized when I read it that I didn’t know anything about the West. It was about Chinese people during the gold rush in the Rocky Mountains, so being married to a Japanese American and being a part of that family I felt like I needed to tell this story.
SCS: How does it feel to see other woman and people of different backgrounds, all of these various voices, being heard through the QWFF?
NK: It’s a new world, isn’t it? People in politics keep saying, “The new demographic that’s coming,” and it’s already here. The demo-graphics of directors has evolved and in the right direction.
SCS: As both a female director and innovator of inclusive story-telling, some may say that you were one of the many women at the forefront of breaking industry barriers; what do you think about that notion?
NK: People kept telling me that I was ahead of my time [when I made Thousand Pieces of Gold]. It was just odd because it didn’t feel that way. It just felt right telling a story about a girl meeting boy, instead of a boy meeting girl.
Photos by Dean Moses