It. Is. Period drama month!!! To celebrate, I’m throwing an extra period drama or two into this month’s lineup, along with our usual Blog Collab programming. The only thing I love more than a period drama is a socially conscious period drama, so this film scores major points with me.
Thousand Pieces of Gold
After being sold as a bride in the States, Chinese-American Lalu attempts to take charge of her destiny and forge a life for herself.
Lalu and her family belong to a group of nomadic shepherds in remote northern China. After an especially bad drought, the family is starving, and it seems unlikely everyone will survive. Lalu’s father makes the heartbreaking decision to sell her as a mail-order bride so she and the rest of the family can live.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reality of Lalu’s situation is hidden and, rather than becoming a bride, she is sold at auction to a Chinese trader named Li Po. Unbeknownst to her, Li Po works for a man who operates a saloon and brothel as the gold rush winds down in Idaho.
Along the way to the States, Lalu is relieved to have someone to talk to and remember the Chinese legends surrounding the constellations. Li Po also helps Lalu learn some basic English so she can avoid the creepy men of the States, but he doesn’t stay around long enough to help her much beyond that.
Upon arriving in Idaho, Lalu realizes Li Po’s employer Hong King doesn’t intend to marry her at all; in fact, he intends to hire her out as a sex worker…while he keeps all of the profits, of course. Lalu becomes Polly as Hong King assures her this will be easier for white people to understand.
Shockingly, the white men of small-town Idaho are pretty much garbage except for Hong King’s friend Charlie. He shows Lalu around town and points out Chinatown, a small but bustling part of the town.
After Aunt Zelda from Sabrina the Teenage Witch(!) gets Lalu ready, she will make her debut at the saloon. Hong King plans to accept the highest bid for Lalu, but no one is particularly interested after she fights off a man who gets handsy. Charlie, who owns the saloon, intervenes and demands Hong King find other work for Lalu. As a compromise, Lalu works for Hong King cooking and cleaning, but still has to sleep with him. Gross.
Eventually, Li Po returns to Idaho and Lalu confronts him about his role in selling her to Hong King. Li Po promises to buy Lalu’s freedom, but it will take time to earn enough money. Pleased with Li Po’s promise, Lalu sleeps with him…which leads Hong King to beat a dead horse yet again (not a euphemism). Hong King decides that, since Lalu consents to sex with one man, she should earn him some money by sleeping with other men.
Again, Charlie intervenes, challenging Hong King to a game of cards. Charlie wagers the deed to the bar against Lalu’s freedom, winning the game. Lalu, afraid that Charlie will just gamble her away to someone else, resists his advances. Charlie is disappointed Lalu isn’t more grateful (eye roll), but he does leave her alone. He tells Lalu she is free, and she begins to take in laundry to earn a living.
Shortly after, Li Po arrives back in town with the money to buy Lalu from Hong King. When he discovers Lalu now lives with Charlie, he is scandalized and leaves town again without waiting for an explanation. Lalu is heartbroken but determined to be independent. Despite Charlie’s objections, she moves out and manages the boarding house, saving as much money as she can to return to China.
Now an independent lady, Lalu attends Chinese New Year celebrations with Charlie. The festivities are cut short when a group of racist dudes show up and injure several people, including Charlie. Soon after, all Chinese immigrants in the area are given eviction notices and told to leave town. Though Charlie hopes Lalu will stay, she believes she will never belong in Idaho and remains intent on leaving for China.
With her Chinese and American identities pulling her in opposing directions, where can Lalu call home?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
This is totally a romance novel in disguise and I love it. However, as a period drama it takes on issues I’ve almost never seen on film: real laws excluding Chinese immigrants from owning businesses, sudden reversals on immigration quotas, and (un)official racist policies driving Chinese-Americans from their homes. I remember learning about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act in my history classes, but I wish we had talked more about what this actually meant for Chinese communities…and the lasting legacy of racist policies.
In addition to the social messages, the characters feel real. Lalu struggles to find a place in the States without losing her identity. Mistreated by many people, she is bruised but determined, and takes shit from no one. Charlie is also a layered character who is, in some ways, a product of his time. While he doesn’t pressure Lalu to sleep with him, he does still have expectations about Lalu magically reciprocating his feelings. And he does benefit from the racist law banning Hong King from owning a business.
I didn’t include it in my review as I am trying to keep my word count under control, but the relationship between Aunt Zelda and Lalu is quite sweet. I’m always here for female solidarity, and their relationship also serves to differentiate between types of sex work. Lalu’s situation is terrible as she doesn’t choose to be a sex worker; Aunt Zelda, however, seems to embrace her role and the freedom it allows her. This is a nuanced distinction for any film to make, and I’m proud of one of my favorite genres for being ahead of the game on this.
I am pleased, period drama gods.