Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The NFR Project #65: 'The Dragon Painter' (1919)

The Dragon Painter
Dir: William Worthington
Prod: not listed
Scr: Richard Schayer, from the novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa
Phot: Frank D. Williams
Premiere: September 28, 1919
53 min.

The Dragon Painter makes an excellent companion piece to the previously reviewed Broken Blossoms, a vastly more popular film featuring an Asian character made the same year. In sharp contrast to the “yellowface” performance of Richard Barthelmess, Dragon Painter is an attempt to create an alternative, non-stereotyped kind of cinema from an Asian-American perspective.

This film was the product of the Haworth Pictures Corporation, founded and funded by the first Japanese film star, Sessue Hayakawa, who had achieved fame and fortune thanks to his performance in only his second film, The Cheat (1915). He was an international star, but could only find roles in mainstream films as a suave villain or an exotic heartthrob, or both simultaneously. As a legitimate actor, Hayakawa wanted to be treated like one. So he went ahead and took care of it himself.

In March, 1918, Hayakawa formed the independent Haworth Pictures Corporation. The Dragon Painter is the ninth of 22 Haworth films that served as popular starring vehicles for him over a span of five years. These productions were a relief for audiences who wanted to see three-dimensional Asian characters conveying a full range of adult emotions.

The Dragon Painter’s story is set in a mythic, rural Japan (a pristine Yosemite Valley substitutes for the real thing). Here, Hayakawa plays Tatsuo, a tortured artist. A magnificent wielder of the brush, he believes that the divinity of the mountain changed his love, a princess, into a dragon, 1,000 years ago, and that he is doomed to include the dragon, unseen but ever-present, in all his paintings. He is a classic rebel: a “wild man,” a truth-teller who has no truck with the fancy and false ways of civilization.

Meanwhile, an older master Kano, who has no son, seeks a protégé to pass his craft to, as well as a spouse for his daughter Ume-ko (Tsuru Aoki, a fine actress and Hayakawa’s wife). Kano summons Tatsuo, telling him his daughter is the princess he seeks. Tatsu and Ume-ko do fall in love, and Kano takes him into the family.

Only — Tatsuo stops painting. “What use is it to paint you now that I’ve found you?” he asks. “I destroyed the divine gift you possessed,” she responds. In a Shakespearian move, she feigns suicide. His inspiration returns — the intertitle proclaims that “sorrow gave back to Tatsuo the mystery that love had taken”. In strong contrast to Hollywood’s typical overwrought ending, Ume-ko simply reappears one day, and Tatsuo realizes that he must integrate art and life. “Now that sorrow has returned your genius, and you have learned that Love must be Art’s servant, I can take my place at your side again without remorse,” she says, and the film ends with him working, her hand on his shoulder. It’s a refreshingly mature outcome for any commercial film, no matter what era.

Even in this attempt to get the cultural integrity “right,” there are contradictions. The film story was taken form a novel written by white American southern woman who was enamored of the East and who traveled extensively there with her second and third husbands. Father figure Kano is played by a Caucasian actor in yellowface, the prolific Edward Peil, Sr. (ironically, he is the only actor to be in the casts of both this and Broken Blossoms). American audiences praised it for its authenticity, but Japanese critics were quick to point out its unconvincing flaws.

Still, it’s a well-acted, well-thought-out piece, complete with magnificent outdoor cinematography from cameraman Frank D. Williams. The pace is crisp, yet the movie takes pleasure in the landscapes Tatsuo tries to capture.

Hayakawa’s life was a thrill ride from the word go. He had already tried suicide after being disqualified from joining the Japanese Navy due to a burst eardrum. He studied political economics at the University of Chicago, where he was a star quarterback. He became an actor by chance; he later turned to a career as an artist (fighting the Nazis in the French Resistance for a time as well). He came back to acting long enough to win praise in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), then became a Zen priest.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: the Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.

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