To watch The Dragon Painter today is to realize how little the role of Asian characters, viewpoints, and aesthetics has advanced over the history of mainstream American cinema. Here is a long-lost silent film, one of the countless casualties of the medium’s early era, coming back from the dead to return to us the legacy of forgotten Asian-American icon Sessue Hayakawa—only to remind us that, in the intervening years, almost no Asian Americans have come close to rivaling his eminence as a traditionally dashing male lead. In the wake of Hayakawa and the even greater Anna May Wong, it seems that the dream of Asian agency in white Hollywood petered out, so that now all we are left with are tired caricatures (from Rush Hour to Better Luck Tomorrow) that keep a still-developing hybrid culture at a standstill. How is it that the silent era—the era of yellow face—gave birth to two of the most legendary, free-spirited Asian American performers, while modern cinema and contemporary pop culture have produced none? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that silent cinema was rooted as much in the mystique and the eye-opening possibilities of the new medium as it was in the racist hierarchies of the time. Perhaps the lack of dialogue meant that immigrant actors with heavily accented English could still carry the starring roles in films. Perhaps the thrill of a young art form led people to seek out new images, and allowed the Asian face to become, for a time, part of the vocabulary of spectacle.
Although the circumstances of its production (under Hayakawa’s creative control at his own Haworth Pictures) would lead some to claim The Dragon Painter as an early Asian-American classic, the term is somewhat misleading, since it would be about as accurate to ascribe that hyphenated label to a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whereas a personalized look at an ostracized community in America would probably have been commercial poison, Hayakawa’s studio hoped to indirectly address the problem of discrimination by removing Japanese characters from the exoticizing gaze and returning them to the glories of their native culture. The film’s wispy, dreamlike visions translate Japanese aesthetics to an American audience, but they have nothing to do with the realities that Hayakawa, Aoki, and immigrants like them must have faced in coming to the U.S., except in the underlying goal of dismantling stereotypes. The film was an extraordinary achievement for racial representation at its time, demonstrating how race could become a non-issue when the film is populated entirely by minorities. Nevertheless, the effect seems mixed today, since it achieves its goal of opening up a new world to the American audience by taking an unchallenging route, positioning an entire civilization not in the realm of complicated reality but of digestible fantasy.
In The Dragon Painter, generally acknowledged as the best existing Haworth film, Hayakawa is at the commercial and artistic height of his career, enjoying popularity equal to Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, and free from the pathetic, asexual, morally depraved caricatures of Asian men that would remain prevalent for decades to come. Here he is Tatsu, an artist of rare talent fueled by an obsession of lost love. As the local madman in a Japanese mountain village (the set is actually Yosemite Valley), Tatsu paints pictures of a dragon who he claims has kidnapped his princess fiancée. When he is adopted by the master artist Kano Indara, who is desperate to nurture a young painter to carry on his traditions, Tatsu falls for his mentor’s beautiful daughter (played by Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki). His romantic contentment leads to the loss of his talent, and he is forced to undergo suffering again to reaffirm the centrality of art in his life.
Plot and character take a backseat to lush, gauzy visuals of waterfalls, gardens, and silhouettes, which rank among the most enchanting of the period. But despite minimal development in the love story, Hayakawa and Aoki share a haunting chemistry unlike anything found in more popular American romances, a mystical and erotic connection as light as air. Surrounding them are all the markers of graceful japonesque aesthetics, a welcome antidote to the exoticized overload of recent Hollywood fare like The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. As pleasing as it is to look at, and as overhyped as it might be as a newly unearthed “lost” film, The Dragon Painter is essential viewing for extratextual reasons, primarily for the way it suggests an ideal of Asian-American talent that, to this day, has yet to be fully mined. It is thrilling to watch a self-made movie star—in a film about the myth of great art stemming from pain—summon the pride, individuality, and magnetism we know were denied him in society. Wild-eyed and powerfully physical, Hayakawa presents us with a character infantilized by his genius, even though in the actor’s own career he displayed a rare degree of control over his choice of roles. For Asian acting this distinctive and charismatic, American audiences post-Hayakawa still have to turn East.
Image/Sound/Extras: Following two of the most celebrated DVD releases of last year—I Am Cuba and Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection—Milestone’s latest offering may seem a modest achievement, in spite of its undeniable historical significance. For The Dragon Painter, the company has assembled a single-disc package whose no-frills presentation hides a wealth of supplementary material. In four DVD-ROM features, including a PDF file of the entire novel on which the film is based, viewers are provided with all the background information needed to understand the importance of this restoration. The disc’s encyclopedic collection of writing (too large to fit in one booklet) examines Hayakawa’s career in the context of silent cinema and minority representation in early American films. Perhaps the best among these essays is a piece by Stephen Gong, an expert on Asian American media who tracks his involvement with the rediscovery of The Dragon Painter in the ’80s. Reminding us that 75% of films from the silent era are now lost, Gong discusses the difficulties and pitfalls in constructing histories of early cinema, resists the narrowness of our current canon, and emphasizes the need to pursue areas of study that have been neglected. While Hayakawa’s films may not be unqualified masterpieces, this disc—which is surely in danger of being ignored by even the most ardent cinephiles—brings into focus the valiant work that has been done to expand our access to and understanding of a largely forgotten career.
It is not clear why this release is not being marketed as a Hayakawa double-bill, since it also includes the entirety of The Wrath of the Gods, in which the star and his wife play leading roles. Allegedly based on an old Japanese legend, this 1914 disaster movie features Tsuru Aoki as a cursed woman and Hayakawa (in heavy make-up) as her father. Anticipating Mizoguchi’s heroines, Aoki is alternately weary and feisty, a mystical martyr with a rebellious spirit. Conflict arises when she falls in love with a stranded American sailor (played by a pre-directorial Frank Borzage) and decides to marry him, even though she has been warned by a local prophet that this will cause a long-dormant volcano to erupt and destroy the village. The film is far less elegantly made than The Dragon Painter, often sacrificing its narrative to over-elaborated set-pieces, but it will grab the attention of viewers whose particular interest is racial and cultural representation in Hayakawa’s films. The cosmic forces behind Christianity and Buddhism literally do battle in the climactic scenes, and it is left ambiguous whether the film endorses the colonialist attitudes embodied by Borzage’s character, or whether it offers a more nuanced view of diverse civilizations and superstitions clashing in the world. Marked by over-the-top gestures, Hayakawa’s performance as a batty old man provides an interesting contrast to his more restrained work in The Dragon Painter (which shows the stronger influence of muga, a Zen philosophy of non-action). Presented here alongside a comedy short with Hayakawa, Fatty Arbuckle, and Charles Murray, both feature films provide an invaluable and intriguing glimpse at a part of film history that has mostly been destroyed. This release reaffirms how great the need is for distributors, like Milestone, who are committed to excavating our past and reassessing our narratives of it. Like Criterion’s magnificent Paul Robeson box set from early last year, it reintroduces us to a performer whose gift was ahead of its time.