The Dragon Painter

B+

The Dragon Painter

Anyone who's seen Know Your Enemy: Japan will have a hard time reconciling the Hollywood propaganda machine's vision of the Japanese as inherently warlike and inscrutable with the version of Japanese culture presented in William Worthington's 1919 silent film The Dragon Painter, produced just a few decades earlier. Worthington, with his star and producing partner Sessue Hayakawa, made more than 20 Asian-themed films in Hollywood in the silent era, each evoking the mood and style of Japanese culture. Their films' emphasis on natural beauty and ancient folklore was fairly unique for the '10s, but what's even more remarkable is that Hayakawa had the box-office clout to get them made. Like his contemporary Anna May Wong, Hayakawa was a millionaire movie star, wildly popular in his day, but now largely forgotten because his films have been hard to find.

Recently discovered in France and restored by The George Eastman House, The Dragon Painter is by all accounts typical of the Worthington/Hayakawa collaborations. Hayakawa plays a village eccentric who gains a reputation as a great but undisciplined artist, and is invited by a traveling surveyor to study with a master. Then Hayakawa falls in love with the master's daughter, and loses the fire in his belly that drove him to paint in the first place. Though hauntingly beautiful—thanks in large part to a newly commissioned score by Mark Izu—at just under an hour, The Dragon Painter is too spare and short to be much more than a quaint fable. Still, Hayakawa is never less than magnetic, whether he's sketching by a waterfall or mingling awkwardly in society circles. He was a silent actor with rare presence, commanding the screen with stillness rather than broad gestures. It's hard to believe that so much of his cinematic legacy has been lost, but that's what time—and the shifting winds of nationalism—will do.

Key features: The complete 1914 feature The Wrath Of The Gods (directed by Reginald Barker, starring Hayakawa), a Fatty Arbuckle short guest-starring Hayakawa, and a wealth of text materials accessible via DVD-ROM.