Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Sessue Hayakawa - The Dragon Painter (1919)

This was a very personal project for Sessue Hayakawa and he saw it as a way of delivering a more cultured view of his home country than his adopted home may have seen. Hayakawa was one of the most gifted actors of his generation as anyone who has seen his performance in The Cheat would attest.

Yet, in spite of his naturalism and heart-throb good looks, he was all too often classed as a bad guy in a time when oriental origins were synonymous with transgression for large parts of the movie-going audience.

But Sessue transcended these limitations and became not just the first Asian leading man in Hollywood but one of the leading men on something like the scale of Valentino. By 1918 he had set up his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation and with more control over the films he made his earnings grew to a staggering two million dollars per annum.

His control extended from production to set design, casting, script and editing – and what we see in this film must have been largely his vision even through the work of varied hired hands.

Directed with sensitive energy by William Worthington The Dragon Painter was based on Mary McNeil Fenollosa’s novel of the same name. With Yosemite Park doubling for The Japanese mountains, it features some wonderful cinematography from Frank D. Williams as the actors blend with the stunning natural backdrop.

Sessue Hayakawa, and Toyo Fujita
Hayakawa is superb as Tatsu, the obsessive “Dragon Painter” who believes that his eternal love is a princess who has been captured and turned into a dragon… He paints in fury hoping to glimpse clues as to where she may be and turns his back on waking society.

Far away, Kano Indara (Edward Peil) one of the great painters of all Japan grows old with no son or protégé to continue his work.  He has his daughter Ume-Ko (Hayakawa's wife Tsuru Aoki*) to console him, but obviously women were not allowed artistic genius in this cultural moment.

Edward Peil
Out one day painting his frustrations away, Tatsu is spotted by Undobuchida, "Uchida" (Toyo Fujita) a construction manager and friend of Kano Indara. He sends him Tatsu’s discarded paintings and then transports the young artist to meet the man who can help him find his dragon and his love.

There’s a pleasingly mystical edge to the narrative which brings a slightly predictable edge to things but your never quite sure how things will unfold.

Sessue Hayakawa and Edward Peil
Tatsu is rude to his new hosts and stomps around the grand master’s lovely garden bashing shrubs with his stick and generally being in a strop. Hayakawa must have relished the chance to play the artistically afflicted youth and there are some humorous moments of anti-social behaviour you would expect from the supposedly disciplined culture of Japan. But no, turns out slapstick is universal as, indeed is love.

Tatsu is immediately smitten with the appearance of Indara’s daughter and agrees to be his pupil in exchange for her hand in marriage. He paints well and exhibits his new works – at last an heir to the artistic heritage.

Tsuru Aoki
But, after marrying his love, Tatsu only wants to worship her – he no longer needs to paint (that’s odd because the reverse happened to me… although that was more DIY-based…). It seems that Tatsu has to be suffering the loss of love to express himself and Ume-Ko realises that she has to do something drastic to re-kindle his artistic desire…

I won’t give the ending away. It’s ultimately a slight tale but very well told amidst some stunning scenery. The leads are all good even though it’s odd seeing Caucasian actors in a few key roles, at least the majority are of Japanese descent. This was pretty much world cinema in 1919 America and the fact that it was successful owes so much to Hayakawa’s charisma and skill: a genuinely ground-breaking performer who deserves to be ranked amongst the silent elite.

I watched the Milestone DVD which uses the 2005 restoration which uses the original tints and also includes a smashing score from Mark Izu. The score is very sympathetic and mixes Japanese instrumentation with more traditional cinematic elements... it makes the experience of watching The Dragon Painter all the more immersive.

The Dragon Painter is available direct from Milestone.

* Sessue and Tsuru Aoki were married for almost 50 years, quite remarkable in Hollywood and the various other film communities they lived and worked. Hayakawa went on to have a long career in talkies most famously starring in The Bridge on the River Kwai. What a life.

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