American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
For some measure of the progress of women, consider "1000 Pieces of Gold," set in the 19th century and telling the story of a Chinese woman sold from man to man as if she were property. The film is based on the little-known fact that years after slavery was abolished in America, Asians were still held in involuntary servitude - sometimes by their own people. Inspired by true stories, the movie is angry and impassioned, but it is also, somewhat surprisingly, a romance.
Rosalind Chao, an actress of great character and presence, stars as a young woman named Lalu, born in China where girl babies were not highly valued, and sold by her father to a Chinese "wife-trader" (Dennis Dun). He brings her to America and sells her as a wife to Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), another Chinese man, who runs a saloon in a dismal backwater settlement in Idaho, and plans to use her as a prostitute. Lalu reacts to his plans violently, with a knife, refusing to prostitute herself, and Hong King wisely observes that she does not seem cut out for the profession.
Lalu's innate self-esteem is her only protection in the wilderness. American laws deny Chinese men citizenship - they are wanted mostly for cheap labor - and women are viewed as even more insignificant. Lalu, nicknamed "China Polly" by the cowboys who cannot be bothered to pronounce her name, is saved from prostitution but then becomes Hong King's slave, until her husband's white partner, a genial alcoholic named Charlie (Chris Cooper), explains to her that slavery has been outlawed.
Charlie, a good man when he doesn't drink too much, is attracted to "Polly," but she dreams only of buying her freedom and returning to China. Then Hong King, short of funds and tired of living with a "hellcat," decides to auction his wife to the highest bidder - and Charlie, in a rare stroke of luck, wins her. She lives with him, but in fierce chastity, until Charlie is shot in an anti-Chinese race riot, and as she nurses him back to health she falls in love with him.