O, Pioneers: Kenji Yamamoto and Nancy Kelly reinterpret the frontier.
Marin director offers a bold new take on the Western genre
By Zack Stentz
JOHN WAYNE. Henry Fonda. Clint Eastwood. Rosalind Chao. No, this isn’t a Sesame Street game of “Which one of these things is not like the other?,” because all of the aforementioned actors have given indelible performances onscreen as iconic figures of the Old West. But while the first three figures are well-known to audiences from such films as Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, and A Fistful of Dollars, you could be forgiven if Chao’s name draws a blank. She was in only one Western, the low-budget independent 1,000 Pieces of Gold, but her fierce performance as Lalu, a courageous Chinese immigrant struggling to escape indentured servitude on the frontier, is by itself enough to put Chao into the same pantheon as the other three.
It helps, too, that Chao’s starring vehicle is an absolutely first-rate, if iconoclastic, film. Together with The Ballad of Little Jo, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even Mario van Peebles’ Posse, 1991’s Gold falls into a category of films that collectively offer a boldly revisionist take on the traditional Western genre. Instead of wide-open spaces inhabited exclusively by fair-haired maids in gingham dresses bearing apple-cheeked children, Gold gives us a multicultural West of economic deprivation, harsh limitations on women, and simmering racism, ever ready to explode into violence, against Asians.
“One of Ted Turner’s channels is doing a series on the Western, and they’re interviewing Chris [Chris Cooper, co-star of the film], Rosalind, and me,” says Gold‘s director, Nancy Kelly, of this film due to screen at the Raven Theater on Oct. 4. “They’re putting us in the whole part of the show that talks about how Westerns have changed and become more multicultural.”
So why isn’t Lalu as famous as Shane or Rooster Cogburn, and why isn’t the beautiful and talented Chao (currently dealing with life, love, and Klingon battle-cruiser attacks as a recurring character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) a star of Eastwood-like proportions? Being an Asian woman in an entertainment industry that has a perpetual woody for white men and few others certainly has something to do with it, as does the fact that 1,000 Pieces of Gold was a fairly small film seen by more people in its numerous airings on public television than in theaters. “She’s getting a lot of work these days,” says Kelly of Chao, “but not nearly as much as she deserves. She’s a wonderful actress, and came to every day of shooting incredibly prepared.”
Though she’s far too modest to say it, Kelly could easily make the same statement about herself. Her film, based on Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s 1981 true-story book of the same name, is remarkably fluid and self-assured for a first feature. Far lesser efforts (has anyone actually sat through all of Straight out of Brooklyn?) have catapulted up-and-coming directors to prominence, yet Kelly is still toiling away in her modest office in San Rafael’s canal district on raising funds for a second feature. “It’s frustrating,” she admits. “I thought that having a track record would mean it would take less time to make the next film than the four years it took to make 1,000 Pieces of Gold, but it’s actually taking longer this time.
“But there’s really no way around the fundraising part. A film production is a big machine: equipment needs to be rented, actors need to be paid, people need to be fed.”
It also doesn’t help that public television’s American Playhouse series, a major benefactor of Gold, is no longer in a position to help. “All of the Republican attacks on public broadcasting have essentially meant the end of American Playhouse,” Kelly laments. “So we’re having to use entirely new fundraising sources.”
On the bright side, Kelly already has a loosely autobiographical script written, tentatively titled The Sweet Wide Open, and two bona-fide Hollywood stars–Edward James Olmos and Lorraine Bracco–attached to the project, which has helped raise interest and pre-sell rights in various foreign markets.
Also, 1,000 Pieces of Gold itself is finding new life on the repertory theater circuit, including the upcoming Raven screening, where Kelly is set to appear in person with her husband, Gold‘s editor/producer Kenji Yamamoto. “The rights recently reverted back to us from the distributor,” she says, “so we have nine prints that we’ve been screening at places like the Lark [Larkspur’s repertory theater]. We had a mutual friend who knew the Raven people, so we contacted them and they were very enthusiastic about screening the film and having us come up.”
Still, Kelly’s focus clearly remains on getting her next project started. And while returning to the wide-open but difficult-to-shoot-in spaces of the American West for her new film may make Kelly seem like a glutton for punishment, this distance runner and avid horsewoman (“I don’t smell like horses, do I?” she asks, having just returned from a morning ride shortly before the interview) isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. “All of the independent film workshops like to tell you all the rules you’re supposed to follow, like never shoot on water or make films with children or animals,” she says. “But you don’t think of those rules when you have a good story you want to tell.
“I wasn’t thinking about all of the costs and difficulties when I read the book [1,000 Pieces of Gold was based on]. All I was thinking was ‘This would make a great movie.'”
1,000 Pieces of Gold plays Friday-Thursday, Oct 4-10, at 7 p.m. at the Raven Theater. Following the first screening, director Nancy Kelly and producer/editor Kenji Yamamoto will speak with the audience. A pre-screening reception is planned at the Flying Goat Roastery from 6 p.m. Raven, 115 North St., Healdsburg. $6. 433-5448.
From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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