It seems patently counter-intuitive, to say the least, to think of Sessue Hayakawa, the evil Col. Saito in David Lean's classic The Bridge on the River Kwai, as a matinee idol. And yet Hayakawa was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, so popular in fact that he was one of the few, like Chaplin and Pickford, able to start his own production company, Haworth Pictures, a collaboration with the director of The Dragon Painter, William Worthington. A beautiful evocation of Japanese culture and ambience, The Dragon Painter, long thought to be lost before a French print was discovered, is certainly a masterpiece of silent cinema and a worthy testament to Hayakawa's acting and production expertise in his relative youth.
The story of The Dragon Painter is disarmingly simple, almost reminiscent of some of Miyazaki's anime features. Hayakawa portrays Tatsu, an inspired (some would say mad) artist convinced his fiancee has been abducted and transformed into a dragon. Therefore the mythical beast becomes the only object of his art. Discovered and introduced to a famous artist who seeks to mentor him, Tatsu decides the famous artist's daughter is his lost fiancee, and ends up marrying her, at which point his ability to paint disappears.
The plot of The Dragon Painter may sound nonsensical, but it is a suitably eastern meditation on the source of inspiration and the relationship between Art and Love (yes, with capitals). But the story is really subservient to the magnificent visuals of this gorgeous film, and they are what will stick with the viewer long after the vagaries of the story have faded. This film is literally like a Japanese silk painting brought to life, with stunning vistas of mountains (perhaps shot in Yosemite) and streams, most of them tinted in various shades of blue and purple, augmenting the more traditional Japanese settings of interiors filled with screens.
Hayakawa and his real-life wife Tsuru Aoki as the artist's daughter give magnificent performances, if occasionally histrionic in the traditional silent era manner. This restored DVD release also features a highly evocative score by Mark Izu which transports the listener to far off oriental locales.