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Tatsu is a slightly delusional painter who lives in the wilderness. He spends his days painting nothing but the image of his love, a princess he believes to have been incarnated as a dragon. His work is noticed by a servant of Kano Indara, an aging master painter who has no male heir or disciple to pass his skills to. The servant brings Tatsu to Indara under the belief that Indara can help him find his princess in exchange for allowing Indara to pass his knowledge on to him. Once there, Tatsu is led to believe that Indara's daughter, Ume Ko, is the princess. Tatsu agrees to stay, but now that he has found his love he no longer has the inspiration to paint the masterpieces that he once produced. Ume Ko pretends to kill herself so that Tatsu can once again find inspiration through his sorrow, and once he regains this she reveals herself to him. He has learned that "love must be a slave to art", and they live out the rest of their days together, with Tatsu painting her as he once did. Written by
"The Dragon Painter" is an interesting silent film; it's about a painter, his art and, of course for the drama, his love story, which I've found to be a promising setup in various films. Among other silent films, Carl Dreyer's "Michael" (1924) and some of the films by Yevgeni Bauer, mostly "The Dying Swan" (1917), come to mind as other worthwhile explorations of these themes. In being art about art, it naturally lends itself to self-reflexivity. In "The Dragon Painter", we don't actually get to see much of the artist's paintings--besides a couple sketches he tosses over a waterfall and a painting at the exhibition--but that's probably for the best, rather than having imitations shown off instead of art. The art in this film is in the photography of landscapes and nature (waterfalls, horizons overlooking canyons, lush gardens and such), which is pictorially beautiful (inexplicably, this film's cinematographer Frank D. Williams learned his craft at Keystone of all places). For one scene, however, a moonlit sky is actually a painted backdrop, which I think nicely reinforces the narrative's self-reflexivity.
In addition to the art about art, Sessue Hayakawa gives an outstanding performance as the painter. I haven't seen him so lively before, although I've only been privileged to see a couple others of his silent films thus far and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957). He was great in "The Cheat" (1915), but he displayed a different sort of acting, characterization there. Hayakawa in "The Dragon Painter" seems closer to Toshirô Mifune, of Akira Kurosawa's films, than to the Hayakawa of "The Cheat" or "The Bridge on the River Kwai". It's appropriate and displays his versatility well. Sessue's real-life wife, Tsuru Aoki, who steals the other film, "The Wrath of the Gods" (1914) available on the same DVD away from him, is also good. Her role in this one could've been rather thankless, but she makes the most of it. On the other hand, this isn't a perfect gem; too many intertitles and some overly quick shot successions seem to be it's most significant weaknesses. Regardless, I'd recommend this for being one of the better films of its time--or, rather, for being a good movie.
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