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CINEMA’S FIRST ASIAN-AMERICAN MASTERPIECE

 

picture - The Dragon PainterDVD Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 19, 2008

 

The Dragon Painter

released by Milestone Films

running time 53 minutes

 

Milestone Films, in its release of  a beautifully restored print of The Dragon Painter, has provided film lovers not only with a “lost” gem from the silent era, but with something of a cultural phenomenon that is desperately in need of further investigation.  It is one thing to be struck by the dazzling beauty and artistic ferocity of the film itself, but its historical significance is, if anything, even more striking.

 

Sessue Hayakawa, known today primarily for his Academy Award-nominated performance as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (and who was equally memorable as another World War II Japanese martinet in the lesser-known Three Came Home), was a major star of Hollywood’s own golden age of silent film, working first with Thomas Ince, achieving stardom in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, and going on to become our first Asian romantic leading man (and as popular in his time as Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks) and gaining notoriety for turning down The Sheik (which gave Rudolph Valentino the opportunity to replace Hayakawa as our best-known exotic foreign-born star).  What Hayakawa did, instead, was to create his own vastly successful production company, Haworth Pictures, where he made a host of films which earned him millionaire status and  which made him as celebrated for his elaborate lifestyle as for his seemingly limitless talent.

 

The greatest triumph of his years with Haworth was apparently The Dragon Painter, made in 1919. The poignancy of this rediscovery in a French distribution print (and its glorious restoration by George Eastman House) is to wonder once again about how many other “lost” masterpieces there are, and, specifically, to wonder about the quality of the other films in the Haworth collection, and how many, if any, still exist. For the moment, we must be thankful that at least we have The Dragon Painter in this pristine print.

 

In it, Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an untethered artist living in a mountainous wilderness who believes that the woman he loves has been stolen by a dragon one hundred years ago, and who must bring her back to life by painting pictures of dragons in order to get to the woman inside the dragon. A venerable artist in search of someone to be his protege discovers these dragon paintings and brings Tatsu to civilization. When Tatsu sees the old artist’s daughter, he believes he has found his lost love and no longer has any need to continue painting. The story, which already has a kind of fairy-tale quality, turns into a mythic exploration of love and art and sacrifice.

 

As fascinating as the content of the film is, it is in its visual lyricism that The Dragon Painter anticipates the great era of the fifties when Japanese cinema exploded on the international scene. There is evidence here, and the great revelation it provides, that art has more to do with its cultural roots than with which country it comes from. One can’t help wondering if Misoguchi or Kurosawa had ever come across The Dragon Painter in their early movie-going experience. We do know that Hayakawa’s films had a great influence in how Americans came to perceive Asian life.

 

The Milestone release has  quite a few extras, the most interesting of which is Thomas Ince’s 1914 classic The Wrath of the Gods, a treatise on the battle between Buddhist belief and the Christian missionary movement. This print is nowhere near as glittering as The Dragon Painter, but, historically, is just as priceless a curiosity. Together, the two films give extraordinary proof of Hayakawa’s breadth and depth as an actor, and the performances of Hayakawa’s wife, Tsuro Aoki, who plays his lost love in the first film and his daughter in the second, attest, as well, to her beautifully modulated skills. And, in The Wrath of the Gods, we get the opportunity to see, in an acting role, Frank Borzage, the great romantic among America’s pantheon of directors (History is Made at Night, The Mortal Storm, Three Comrades). Milestone Films should be applauded for continuing to make such rare films available.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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