Remembered mostly for his magnificent performance as the Japanese officer in The Bridge over the River Kwai, few filmgoers realize that Sessue Hayakawa was one of the great stars of the silent cinema. In many films he played a dashing, romantic lead — a rarity for Asian actors in Hollywood, even today. Hayakawa became so popular and powerful that he was able to start Haworth Pictures to control his own destiny. The Dragon Painter (1919) was the finest of the Haworth productions. Beautifully acted, gorgeously shot (with Yosemite Valley filling in for the Japanese landscape), and lovingly directed, the film is an absolute marvel.
Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an artist living as a hermit in the wilds of Japan. Thought mad by the local villagers, he believes that his princess fiancée has been captured by a dragon. His obsession leads to artistic inspiration. It isn’t until a surveyor comes across Tatsu in the mountains that his genius is discovered. The surveyor informs the famed artist Kano Indara about his discovery. Kano is desperate to find a male heir to teach his art, but when Tatsu meets Kano’s daughter (played by Hayakawa’s wife, Tsuru Aoki) and sees only his lost princess, a clash of wills brings the household to the brink of disaster.
Long considered lost, The Dragon Painter was rediscovered in a French distribution print and brought to the George Eastman House for restoration with the original tints. The film survives today as a tribute to Hayakawa’s great artistry and a shining example of Asian-American cinema. The Japanese score by Mark Izu is a remarkable work of art complimenting the film perfectly!