Sessue Hayakawa is perhaps best remembered today for his memorable Oscar-nominated performance in "Bridge on the River Kwai," but he was, in fact, one of the top stars of the early 1920s. His stardom was brief, but for a time he was a major romantic lead, a rarity for Asian actors in American movies.
"The Dragon Painter" is a 1919 feature that has been beautifully restored with its original tints, and given a wonderful score by Mark Izu. This is the story of a Japanese artist living a hermitic existence and longing for a lost love whom he insists was captured by a dragon. The townspeople dismiss him as insane, and refer to him disparagingly as a dragon painter. Soon, he learns that it is this imagined loss is what inspires his creative vision as an artist.
As silent drama goes, "The Dragon Painter" is perfectly representative of its era. It is also fitting that a film about an artist would feature shots that are framed like works of art. The director (William Worthington) uses space within each frame to beautifully capture the characters and narrative (the shot from above of Tatsu creating art as a waterfall cascades slowly just off the center of the frame, is a good example).
Hayakawa’s performance is exceptional, as he carefully balances between comic madness and dramatic intensity. It really is a tour-de-force, and an interesting portent to the actor’s later roles with which we are more familiar.
The DVD from Milestone also includes some great special features. Another Sessue Hayakawa performance, in the 1914 Thomas Ince feature "The Wrath of the Gods," is included. There is also a 1921 Screen Snapshots entry with Hayakawa, Roscoe Arbuckle,
and Keystone comedian Charlie Murray. The extras are rounded out by Presskits, Stills Galleries, Essays, and the original Mary McNeill Fenollosa novel from which "The Dragon Painter" is taken.
Silent cinema is currently represented by only about ten or fifteen percent of that which was filmed during the first third of the 20th century. Its significance to our cultural history makes it artistically criminal that so limited a selection is available. Companies like Milestone work hard to restore films from this era and make them accessible. As with any of their releases, "The Dragon Painter" is an important addition to any comprehensive film library.