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Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Dragon Painter (1919)

I've only seen one silent film featuring Sessue Hayakawa, which was the one that everyone sees first: The Cheat, a 1915 tour de force for Cecil B De Mille in which he stole the show from lead actress Fannie Ward. It was The Cheat that made him a name, and he became a serious name, possibly the first male sex symbol of the silver screen. The term I hear most is 'matinee idol', something that meant a lot back in the silent era. By 1918 he had formed his own production company called Haworth Pictures, which he used for 22 films. This was number nine and while I'm as big an exploitation fan as the next man, it's highly refreshing to see a real Oriental story on the screen this far back. Hayakawa movies may be the only opportunity we get to see such things from Hollywood.

Naturally, Hayakawa plays the dragon painter of the title, Tatsu by name, and he's more than a little out of his gourd. He lives like a hermit in the remote countryside, continually searching for his fiancee who he believes was stolen from him by the divinity of the mountains, who through the power of enchantment turned her into a dragon a thousand years before. All he paints therefore are dragons, though you would recognise any in the drawings. One we see is a beautiful landscape of a lake, but Tatsu really painted a dragon, merely one sleeping beneath the waters of the lake where it isn't visible to anyone. His poetic soul isn't in doubt, his sanity is.

Back in Tokyo is an old master, Kano Indara, who bizarrely for an almost entirely Japanese cast is played by an American, Edward Peil Sr. He's getting old and his genius will soon die out for lack of anyone to follow in his footsteps: he has no son and no disciple worthy of continuing his legacy, at least that is until a surveyor friend discovers Tatsu in the mountains and brings him back to the master. In Kano's daughter Ume Ko, not unsurprisingly played by Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa's real life wife and regular collaborator, Tatsu sees his eon-lost princess and soon he's Indara's apprentice and Ume Ko's husband.

The catch is one I know well. Tatsu finds that his art leaves him with his longing. He paints his dragons because he is away from his princess and his talent brings her closer to him. Yet once she's with him, he has no need left for painting her. He can see just her by looking at her in reality. I can understand this concept, though my art was a different one. When I longed for someone so hard that it hurt, the poems flowed out of me, but once that longing has been replaced by a more immediate love that doesn't have to work at a distance, the poems stopped. It wasn't through choice, it was through need. Without the need, there's no need for what feeds off the need.

The Dragon Painter was fascinating to me. It was made in 1919, before the 1920 year I've long seen as a watershed for quality, yet it's a vividly artistic achievement. Not only is the tone poetic and artistic in nature, but in keeping with the theme of painting the shots are very carefully composed, like Tatsu's paintings themselves. Composition is fundamental here, which is highly surprising for a 1919 film, and whether it's the work of director William Worthington, cinematographer Frank D Williams or art decorator Milton Menasco, it's admirable work and seemingly half a decade ahead of its time.

The cast is fine but doesn't stand out. Tsuru Aoki didn't impress me much and while Edward Peil Sr wasn't bad, he was a painful anomaly. It's all Hayakawa's show and he bounds around to prove it. He's a bundle of energy, a powder keg ready to blow, all reminding of nobody less than Douglas Fairbanks Sr. I half expected him to start hurdling small buildings. I have another Hayakawa on the DVR, 1932's Daughter of the Dragon. It'll be really interesting to hear him in a sound film, and to compare his performance with two other noted actors with Oriental connections: Anna May Wong, who was Chinese-American and Warner Oland, who wasn't oriental in the slightest but who built a career out of playing such, not least as the most memorable Charlie Chan. I'll also need to seek out the novel that this film was based on. It's by Mary McNeil Fenollosa and is old enough to be public domain.

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