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Sizing Up The Dragon Painter

Once upon a time, cineastes had to look long and hard, and expend tremendous amounts of energy, in order to see obscure films. But thanks to the home video revolution and the rise of Internet shopping, intriguing flicks from moviedom's past are readily available -- even those that seem to have been lost forever. The Dragon Painter is one such offering: a 1919 release that studiously avoids the sort of Asian stereotypes that were endemic during that period of American moviemaking, and for long afterward.

The man behind the film was Sessue Hayakawa, who went on to a long career in Hollywood; he's best known today for playing Colonel Saito, a Japanese officer in director David Lean's 1957 military epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Almost four decades earlier, however, he'd established himself as enough of a box-office draw to win the lead role in The Dragon Painter: Tatsu, an artist whose skill with a brush is driven by his obsessive love for a (probably imaginary) woman he believes has been turned into a dragon. Kano Indara, an aging painter seeking an apprentice to take over for him in the near future, subsequently discovers Tatsu and convinces him to stick around by implying that the old master's eligible daughter is his lost love. But once Tatsu and the daughter wed, the young madman is flooded with sanity that drowns out his creative impulses -- at least until his new bride seemingly drowns.

That's pretty much it for plot, and director William Worthington doesn't belabor it. The film runs for only about fifty minutes, necessitating the addition of several hefty features -- including a second Hayakawa film, 1914's The Wrath of the Gods-- to give the new DVD edition, from Milestone Cinematheque, an acceptable heft. Still, the imagery, much of it captured on location at waterfalls and other natural settings, is striking, the compostions are so carefully worked out that the lack of camera movement proves to be no problem for the modern viewer, and Hayakawa's performance, though marked by the exaggeration of gesture common to the silent era, proves to be unexpectedly magnetic.

Other incongruities remain, including the casting of an Anglo, Edward Peil, in the pivotal role of Kano; most of the other actors, including Tsuru Aoki as the daughter, are Asian. Nevertheless, no dragon ladies appear The Dragon Painter, nor do any inscrutable detectives or merciless Mings. As a result, this pristine miniature, rescued from a crumbling French print just before it deteriorated entirely, retains an unexpected freshness even though it was made nearly ninety years ago. -- Michael Roberts