May 22, 2014
The Dragon Painter – US, 1919
By the time Sessue Hayakawa made his 1919 film The Dragon Painter, he had been appearing in films for five years, enough time for him to know the obstacles that actors of Asian descent faced in Hollywood. A year earlier, he had founded Haworth Pictures Corporation, with the express purpose of countering the standard roles that Hollywood gave to Asian actors and actresses, roles such as that of a temptress, a gambler, an opium den owner, and a merciless villain intent on stealing the hero’s love interest. All told, Haworth Pictures produced 22 films. The Dragon Painter is the ninth of these, and it remains a substantial curiosity – a film that is both extremely moving and slightly unnerving in the way it seems to back the manipulative and somewhat disturbing actions of several of its protagonists. After all, it is one thing to use art to express pain; it is quite another thing to deliberately manufacture it in order to facilitate the creation of art.
In The Dragon Painter, Hayakawa plays Tatsu, a young man so lively that were the film made today I have no doubt that someone would reference him and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder in the same sentence. Tatsu seems driven by an inner spirit that has never heard of the concept of rest. Not even painting can calm his restive nature. In an early scene, we watch as he paints a picture, crumples it up, tosses it into the air, and begins another one. He also has some unusual ideas, his most intriguing one having to do with a spirit taking away his fiancée and transforming her into a dragon. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, an elderly artist named Kano Indara (Edward Peil Sr.) searches in vain for an artist so skilled that he could carry on his legacy and his family name. The obvious question is: Could the eccentric Tatsu fit that description?
There are things that have to happen in a movie of this sort, and like other tales of eccentric young men in the wild, this one too calls for its hero to leave his natural settings and head for the big city. In fact, the film may owe at least a tiny piece of its narrative structure to Edward Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, which was first published in 1912. Like Tarzan and later fish-out-of-water tales like Crocodile Dundee and Coming to America, Tatsu’s initial city encounters are fraught with mistakes and misunderstandings. What sets Hayakawa’s Tatsu apart is that unlike Tarzan, who is a figure of great strength and courage, Tatsu is a lost soul in desperate need of rescue. It stands to reason then that Mr. Indara must have a daughter whose role it will ultimately be to do just that. This character, Ume-ko, is played by Hayakawa’s wife in real life, Tsuru Aoki.
The film was directed by William Worthington, whom I had not heard of prior to watching this film. Worthington himself had a rather interesting career. From 1915 to 1925, he worked both behind the camera and in front of it before deciding to focus exclusively on acting. According to IMDB, he directed 67 films and appeared in 165 of them – quite a career indeed. From The Dragon Painter, it is clear that he knew how to use the camera to create rather spectacular visuals, and he trusted his actors to deliver emotional moments in close-ups. Hayakawa rewards him for this faith.
There can be a tendency to overpraise films like The Dragon Painter, for anytime something goes against the grain, people tend to want it to be better than it might really be. Therefore, we must be careful that we appreciate this film for what it is and not what we would want it to be. First, The Dragon Painter is indeed a moving film about characters that we don’t often see in films from America during the silent period. It has a plot that is truly original and plot twists that are not easy to predict. It is beautifully shot and well paced, and it contains a performance by an actor who had an amazing degree of talent. In scene after scene, Hayakawa proves himself a master of expressing complex emotions, and there are moments in which the audience will find themselves experiencing the angst and joy that his character feels. Truly, he is that good. On the other hand, the film is not without its faults. The set up to its love story is awkward, and it is not entirely plausible that a man would offer his daughter to someone who clearly believes in the things that Tatsu does. In addition, the film’s final message concerning that never-ending battle between love and art is unsettling, for it seems to deprive Ume-ko of the stature for which she has fought so hard.
And yet, faults and all, The Dragon Painter remains an impressive accomplishment. The film has a hypnotic power, partly as a result of its magical settings and involving storyline, and partly due to the performances of its talented cast. We care for these characters. Even when we question their actions, it is a credit to everyone involved in the film that we never question their motives. Working from a novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, screenwriter Richard Schayer weaves a complicated tale and succeeds in making it emotional, stirring, and somewhat magical. I won’t call the film a masterpiece myself, but I’ll admit I can understand why other people do. (on DVD from Milestone Film & Video)
3 and a half stars