The Dragon Painter (1919) dir. William Worthington
Starring: Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki, Toyo Fujita
Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw
That exotic, magical and wondrous land that exudes mystery – always and forever replete with the oh-so tantalizing fruits of utter temptation that drive those of the Occidental persuasion to such dizzying pinnacles of obsession that they threaten to rival even the heights scaled by the imaginary progeny of a Sir Edmund Hillary and Blaze Starr coupling.
And no Land of the Orient can tickle the white-bread fancy of the Occident than that of … Nippon!
O! LAND OF NIPPON!
O! LAND OF GREAT JAPAN!
LAND OF THE RISING SUN!
LAND OF THE SAMURAI!
The delights you have offered us and continue to offer us are bounteous indeed.
And none are so bounteous as the delights offered to moviegoers the world over when the late, great Sessue Hayakawa ruled the silver screens of silent Hollywood and gave men and women alike a glimpse into the glories of the mysterious East.
Most of us know Sessue Hayakawa as the Oscar-nominated actor who played the legendary Col. Saito in “Bridge On The River Kwai” - David Lean’s classic war epic that delved into the souls of Occident and Orient alike against the backdrop of a Japanese P.O.W. camp. However, in the early years of cinema, Mr. Hayakawa was one of the most sought-after leading men.
Discovered by pioneering producer Thomas Ince (himself the father of numerous standards of production employed to this very day), Hayakawa got his start and immediately demanded and received unheard-of salaries for that period. He eventually signed with Paramount Pictures and his starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” turned him into a $5000 per week leading player. During this time, he formed his own production company Haworth in order to generate productions not only for himself, but his wife Tsuru Aoki and a host of other Asian Americans. His goal was to create box-office hits and roles for Asians that challenged SOME (though certainly not all) the stereotypes common to Asian roles during this period. In this sense, Hayakawa was well ahead of his time – call it ‘Forty Acres and a Samurai’, if you will. (Eat your heart out, Spike!)
Hayakawa clung to the mystery and history of the Orient, but chose to present the characters in more heroic roles rather than the typical Occident view of Asians which was mysterious, cool, sexy, but ULTIMATELY – evil. If one were to equate this with the images of Native Americans on the Silver Screen, it’s probably safe to suggest that Hayakawa clung to the notion of the “noble savage” and recognized the inherent box-office appeal of this stereotype and its less harmful and offensive “qualities” (which, of course were replete in that of the just plain old evil “savage”).
“The Dragon Painter” definitely falls into the Asian equivalent of the “noble savage” stereotype. Audiences have always been drawn to the exotic, but especially so during the early years of motion pictures. This was, of course, a time when the world still felt young and exploration of uncharted lands and discovery of new cultures was at a fever pitch. Coupled with the new medium of cinema, audiences – especially those in the West – just couldn’t get enough of what was perceived to be different or exotic.
In “The Dragon Painter”, Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an artist living alone in the mountains. Perceived by those around him to be insane, he does nothing to give them another opinion since he obsessively paints only portraits of dragons. He is convinced that his beloved fiancée was stolen from him and turned into a dragon. Tatsu’s grief knows no bounds and he insanely continues his dragon paintings. But, crazy or not, Tatsu is clearly a gifted artist and when he is brought before a Master Painter, he’s given a chance to become even greater. It is here where Tatsu faces his ultimate challenge when he comes face to face with the woman he once loved (played by Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki). He is a happy man once again. Or is he? Grief had eventually become this artist’s muse and now that he is without grief, he stands to lose the gift of his supreme artistry.
“The Dragon Painter” is an utterly exquisite celluloid tapestry of art and love. It is replete with images that are staggeringly, heart-achingly beautiful and charged with a sense of longing and passion that has seldom been matched.
Hayakawa is, quite simply, remarkable. Completely avoiding the usual silent histrionics, he delivers an intense, sexy and, at times, agonizingly beautiful performance – thoroughly and utterly restrained. It’s not surprising to see why he was such a big star. He is, quite frankly, gorgeous. His flat, broad forehead, piercing eyes, aquiline nose, glorious cheekbones, full, supple lips and a profile to rival that of even the great John Barrymore himself, Hayakawa is without question, an Asian Valentino. Even the way he moves on screen has grace and precision. Perhaps this has something to do with his cultural roots in the Samurai tradition. As a teenager, Hayakawa even attempted seppuku and stabbed himself in the stomach close to forty times. Finally, whatever it was that contributed to his genius as an actor, matters less than what is before us on the silver screen – a star of the highest magnitude.
“The Dragon Painter” was, by the way, a lost film and only one print existed in France. It has been painstakingly restored for posterity and I sincerely believe my life, and certainly the lives of anyone who cares about cinema, have been made all the more full for having had a chance to see it.
This, of course, is where Milestone Films comes in since they have released this stunning work of art to DVD in a special edition that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not only are we treated to a gorgeous transfer of restored/rescued elements, but also the DVD includes such delights as the odd short pairing of Hayakawa with Fatty Arbuckle and the feature length marvel entitled “The Wrath of the Gods”. The latter film not only stars Hayakawa and Aoki, but also features a very young Frank Borzage (immortal director of “Three Comrades”, “A Farewell to Arms” and many others) as a sailor who becomes entranced with a young Asian woman who has been cursed by Buddha. “The Wrath of the Gods” (written and produced by the great and aforementioned Thomas Ince) not only features some really tremendous storm footage and effects, but also makes for equally compelling viewing.
There are lots of great companies out there who unearth some real finds, but Milestone is clearly a company that is devoted to digging very deep for product that not only deserves exposure, but also damn well DEMANDS it.
“The Dragon Painter” is surely a film that demands to be watched by all true cineastes and has found a home thanks to Milestone.
The Gods of Nippon are smiling.