March 14, 2008
The Dragon Painter
Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****
The most amazing thing about The Dragon Painter (1919) isn't so much that it has been rescued, restored and released on DVD, or that it's quite good, but that it ever existed at all. In the early days of the 20th century, many decades before "politically correct" was invented, racial stereotypes were everywhere and went largely unquestioned. Yet the Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) somehow became a major star of the American screen -- and even a heartthrob -- without changing his name or hiding his cultural background. He was born of high status, the son of a governor, but trouble with his hearing steered him toward the stage. While touring the United States, producer Thomas Ince discovered him and gave him his first movie roles. His breakthrough film was Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915). Of course, he played mainly the "exotic other," either as an alluring love interest or a captivating bad guy, but he enjoyed a long career. He worked all the way through the 1960s and even earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). By the end of the teens, Hayakawa was making as much or more money than many white stars, and he left his studio contract to form an independent company that would make purely "Asian" films. Sadly, most of these films are lost, but The Dragon Painter remains.
Directed by William Worthington, The Dragon Painter is fairly sophisticated for the time, with its serene, meticulous backdrops and storytelling techniques. When we first meet our hero, he stands on a small jut of land, stuck in the corner of the frame, overlooking a miraculous waterfall. Hayakawa stars as Tatsu, a talented but tormented painter who insists that his "princess" has been stolen from him and turned into a dragon. He lives as a hermit in the woods and paints only pictures of his princess. An empty landscape, for example, isn't really empty; his dragon is sleeping at the bottom of the lake. Meanwhile, an old master painter (Edward Peil Sr.) has searched far and wide for an apprentice to follow in his footsteps, and only Tatsu's paintings intrigue him. But in order to coax the crazy hermit down from his mountain, the painter's daughter (Tsuru Aoki) must pose as the reincarnated princess. Unfortunately, having her back in the flesh drain's the hermit's passion for painting. It's too bad that the filmmakers chose not to show more artwork for the camera, but the compositions -- many set outdoors -- are breathtaking enough to suggest any artistic masterworks. (The film was mainly shot in Yosemite.) On top of its artistic achievements, The Dragon Painter also demonstrated that there was more to the Japanese culture than stereotypes suggested.
Milestone has released a very fine DVD of The Dragon Painter, loaded with extras. The feature itself runs only 53 minutes, so Milestone has included another film, Thomas Ince's The Wrath of the Gods (1914), which, frankly, isn't nearly as interesting. We also get a brief silent comedy short that Hayakawa made with Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray, a still gallery and several items on the DVD-Rom side: a script for The Wrath of the Gods, a press kit, the "Dragon Painter" novel, and more.
Posted by cphillips at March 14, 2008 5:53 PM