Milestone's reputation for producing DVDs with the cinephile in mind solidifies with the release of The Dragon Painter, a once-lost silent classic that reintroduces film fandom to the great Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa.
Decades before his Oscar-nomination for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hayakawa was a Chaplin- and Fairbanks-sized star. The success allowed him to form his own company, Haworth Pictures, to produce films promoting positive representations of Asian Americans, including the lush 1919 melodrama The Dragon Painter. Hayakawa stars as a brilliant but mad artist who roams the mountains painting dragons and searching for a lost love. When an older artist in need of an artistic heir learns of the wild-man's brilliance, he masquerades his daughter (Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa's real wife) as the missing love -- a move that lures the feral to civilization, but sacrifices his artistic vision. Hayakawa's performance stands out amid many of silent cinema's noted exaggerations for its quiet, natural intensity. This elegance flows into the film, from Hayakawa and Aoki's gentle interactions and the picturesque mountain scenery (Yosemite Valley being a surprisingly adequate stand-in for Japan's Hanake Mountains) to Mark Izu's new score blending traditional Japanese music and Jazz. But the original color tinting is the film's most striking quality -- its vibrancy a testament to the George Eastman House's restoration work. As The Dragon Painter runs a mere 53 minutes, Milestone fills the package with choice bonuses: the 1914 silent feature The Wrath of the Gods, starring Hayakawa and Aoki; Screen Snapshots, a 1921 comedy short pairing Hayakawa and Fatty Arbuckle; a slew of DVD-ROM features; and much more. (Phil Morehart) Grade: A