The aesthetic life of an artist has long been a cinematic source for stirring characterization. The connection between the gifted and the disturbed, the obsessive and the purely passionate has fueled many a motion picture portrait. From printers to sculptures, singers to writers, the ways of the skilled and special tend to juxtapose the socially acceptable with the personally profound. The result is a story centered in individual conceits, but decided via universal facets and germane generalization.
The gorgeous, luxuriant silent classic The Dragon Painter (new to DVD from Milestone Film and Video) wants to tell the tale of an eccentric wild man, a true master of form and shape who cannot break from his own internal strife. Vigilantly seeking a princess who he believes transformed into a mythic beast, we soon learn that it’s sorrow and desperation, not love and happiness, that fuels his most stunning, original work.
When we meet Tatsu, played by renowned early era Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, he is a dervish, a man literally lost in the wilderness and frantic to find the woman of his dreams. The locals all consider him crazy, talented but far too unstable. When a surveyor runs across the artist’s work, he knows just what to do. Seems noted master illustrator Kano Indara is looking for an apprentice to carry on his name. Until Tatsu, no one was capable of taking up said mantle.
After a rocky introduction, the two become teacher and student. Tatsu even falls for and marries Indara’s daughter, Ume Ko, believing she is his missing paramour. But happiness starts to stifle our hero. He can no longer paint, and has the urge to do little or nothing. Heartsick, Ko decides that drastic steps are in order. To save her husband, she may have to sacrifice herself.
Indeed, what one has to remember about The Dragon Painter is that it was made in an era when refinement and delicacy were far from motion picture mandates. Performances were still pitched right to the rafters, the result of so many theatre types entering the industry. Even worse, minorities were still mocked, relegated to humiliating places as racially insensitive comic relief or outright ethnic criminals. Here, under the insightful direction of William Worthington, the mainly Japanese cast (only master Kano Indara is played by Englishman Edward Peil Sr.) shows great restraint and even greater cultural compliance. There’s no buck toothed bigotry involved. In fact, many have called Hayakawa the Asian Valentino for his slow burn and smolder in films like this.
Such a magnetism is indeed present in every frame of The Dragon Painter. The story is purposefully simple, the better to allow our lead to shine. There are tinges of Barrymore and Fairbanks in Hayakawa, a suave and debonair demeanor that hides a turbulent inner fire. During the opening sequences, when Tatsu is running around the mountainside scribbling feverishly and acting unhinged, we see the method behind the actor’s purposeful madness. Our hero is not really insane, just heartsick. He so loves his lost princess that it turns his existence into the singular service of creation.
There is just as much power in the moments when Tatsu is no longer capable of painting. Watching the look on Hayakawa’s face, the devastating loss of power and skill is depressing. It’s a testament to his talent that we feel his waywardness and disillusion. The performance never oversells or overdoes the drama. Instead, director Worthington keeps the takes short and sweet. This allows these moments to resonate with an intensity that comes from the work onscreen, not the essential language of film. In the end, when the denouement is delivered and we see the purpose of Tatsu’s pain, we feel the same sort of epic uplift the movie depicts. It’s part of The Dragon Painter‘s profound magic.
It’s a shame then that Hayakawa is not as well known as his silent superstar brethren. If Milestone has anything to say about it, this dynamic digital package will change all that. Along with a nicely restored Painter, the company also includes another of the actor’s more accomplished works. The Wrath of the Gods, is a 60 minute movie from 1914 that offers an old Japanese parable with some intriguing miniature work. Subtitled The Destruction of Sakura-Jima, this tall tale of a cursed family, an old volcano, and the interracial marriage that could mean the death of everyone, has it all - old school melodrama, lynch mobs, and a literal fire and brimstone ending. Hayakawa is Lord Yamaki, almost unrecognizable underneath pounds of heavy make-up. Yet his presence helps propel this film along, helping a modern viewer appreciate the otherwise overwrought narrative.
Similarly, there are a series of DVD-Rom extras (essays, explanations) which help highlight Hayakawa’s significance. One of the easiest to get a handle on is the five minute short featuring Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray. Here, our star is reduced to playing a stereotype - in this case, what appears to be a Chinese railroad worker. While there is much dignity in the dopey interplay between the actors, this is the kind of role that actors of his ethnicity were frequently relegated to. Sometimes, it was all that they had. That Hayakawa overcame such intolerant typecasting (he eventually had his own company making his own movies) suggests how important he is to the history of Asians in Hollywood.
During the middle section of the movie, when Indara is questioning Tatsu about his work, the subject of the title creatures comes up. Looking over one of the many landscapes he creates, the master is curious. “Where is the dragon here?” Indara asks, pointing to a charcoal sketch of a lake. “There.” Tatsu argues, “He’s sleeping under the water.” As with all art, interpretation is clearly in the eye of the beholder. But what goes on inside the artist is equally important, and it’s this note that drives The Dragon Painter. A life in service of specialness - be it to a canvas or a camera - can often be clichéd and cruel. But thanks to the amazing work of Hayakawa and the rest of the silent film community, it’s not formulaic or flat. Here, it’s a revelation.