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03.19.08

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Phaedra

The Dragon Painter

One disc; Milestone; $29.95

By Richard von Busack


Muses: can't live with 'em, can't live without them. In a near hour-long drama from 1919, producer/actor Sessue Hayakawa outlines a different road the American cinema might have taken: one in which the Japanese weren't invariably cast as sinister killers or beaming houseboys. This fable, one of 22 films Hayakawa's Haworth Company made in the silent era, is a story of the war between the classical and the romantic. The hermit painter Tatsu (Hayakawa) lives by a waterfall in the Hanake Mountains of Japan (played winningly by the Yosemite valley). Meanwhile, in the city, an old master painter, the last of his line, fears he will never have an heir. He does have a beautiful daughter, played by Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa's real-life wife. When the barefoot, ragged Tatsu becomes the master's apprentice and marries the daughter, he also loses the yearning he needed in order to paint. Hayakawa shows himself a model for the matinee idols to come in the following years; he's both as arrogant as a samurai in a woodblock and as sensitive as a '50s method actor. This Milestone edition comes with a serious array of extras, including PDF files of the original novel The Dragon Painter is based on and a clip of Hayakawa clowning with Fatty Arbuckle. Also on the disk is most of a 1914 Thomas Ince production The Wrath of the Gods (a.k.a. The Destruction of Sakura-Jima), which is longer than the main feature. The production values are phenomenal for 1914 film, with extras, costumes, sets, miniatures and special effects. It's a true epic, and yet it bears the same relationship to Asian religion as The Birth of a Nation bears to racial politics. A gray-bearded Baron (Hayakawa) and his daughter (Aoki) live like beachcombers, thanks to a curse by their strange vengeful god Buddha. A shipwrecked Yankee sailor (Frank Borzage) uses a rosary to bring the father and daughter out of superstitious darkness, but the locals will have none of it. Eventually, the one true God settles the matter with a volcano. One can discern in Borzage's acting some of the sensitivities he would show as a director; he seems a subtle, well-developed player—and contrasting these two performances also shows how much Hayakawa learned as an actor in five years. Extras here include blueprints to make your own special-effects volcano, useful if you have heathens in your neighborhood.


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