The Dragon Painter

You probably remember Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa best for his Oscar-nominated turn as Col. Saito, the POW camp commander in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, from 1957.

No, I didn’t think you’d actually remember. But you should, so I can act even more superior and lecture you on how little you really know of the great Hayakawa and his motion-picture exploits, which were legion and marvelous.

Well before Kwai, in fact, he was probably the most successful Asian-American movie producer of his era, and a huge star.The Dragon Painter, a 1919 classic recently rediscovered, restored, rescored (radiantly) by Mark Izu and released to DVD, shows why.

True, Hayakawa’s zen performance style, famously an “absence of doing,” is less apparent in the necessarily exaggerated silent-movie milieu, but his screen presence still shines brightly—particularly with a beautifully photographed Yosemite Valley standing in for the verdant wilds of Japan behind him. He plays Tatsu, a reclusive artist rightly considered crazy by his village neighbors, who’s obsessed with the idea that his fiancée was abducted by a dragon long ago. So obsessed, actually, that you might say he’s inspired: Guess what all of his paintings, which just happen to be superlative, are about?

This comes to the attention of an old master painter (the prolific early-film performer Edward Peil, magnetic as always but not at all convincingly Japanese) who’s in search of a worthy apprentice—and has a lovely and charming and marriageable daughter (Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa’s actual wife). Good times, yes?

Not exactly. Tatsu thinks the woman actually is his lost love. Worse, his involvement with her renders him creatively impotent. “I painted you before, when I’d lost you,” he says. “What use is it to paint you now that I’ve found you?”

The Dragon Painter has an answer, but it requires complicity with an unsettling sacrifice, and with the assertion from Tatsu’s beloved that “love must be art’s servant.” Still provocative after all these years.