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Here's a worthy film that should be added to the study of early Hollywood's images of Asians. Too often discussion has been limited to Sessue Hayakawa's villain in THE CHEAT (1915), and Richard Barthelmess's tragic yellowface love for Lillian Gish in Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), as representing respective polarities from fear of rape to noble sacrifice on behalf of white purity. However, the range of narrative possibilities in films at the time was far more complex than implied by the canonization of THE CHEAT and BROKEN BLOSSOMS, as the DVD release of THE DRAGON PAINTER reveals.
The bonus feature, THE WRATH OF THE GODS (1914), produced by Thomas Ince, was the first of a Japanese series in which he brought stage actors Tsuru Aoki and Hayakawa to celluloid starmaking roles, incidentally also resulting in their marriage. Unlike either THE CHEAT or BROKEN BLOSSOMS, in THE WRATH OF THE GODS, despite the volcanic eruption figuratively described by the title, the isolated Japanese woman and the shipwrecked American sailor find true love under the archway of Christianity. This is no Madame Butterfly story, but a reversal of it, although it may seem today less than progressive since Buddhism must make way for the faith of the West-although Buddhism is depicted as oppressing the principal Japanese characters.
Five years later, when he gained sufficient status, Hayakawa joined with director William Worthington to form their own company to produce Hayakawa's starring vehicles, merging the two names and calling the endeavor Haworth, to produce Hayakawa's starring vehicles. Many reviewers today have mistakenly ascribed to this commercial move some kind of modern-style reformist zeal to depict true Asian images, but the existing films of Haworth etch a more complex result.
Two other Haworth films survive at the Library of Congress, and were screened in a 2003 tribute to Hayakawa I organized. In THE TONG MAN (1919) and AN ARABIAN KNIGHT (1920), he crosses ethnic lines as a sort of generalized "other." THE TONG MAN is a stereotypical story of violence in Chinatown that aroused the resentment of Chinese groups even in its own time.
Farther afield from expectations but nonetheless still squarely within genre formula was AN ARABIAN KNIGHT, in which an Egyptologist's sister believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient princess and that a donkey tender of the street (Hayakawa) and was also involved in her life millennia ago. He rescues the family's ward from abduction by another Arab and wins her love, uniting Arab and white in a movie presaging THE SHIEK (1921). However, unlike the Valentino vehicle, there is no last-minute revelation of the hero's European lineage to assuage racial anxiety, and certainly Hayakawa's casting emphasizes racial difference. Still, rather than the intense romanticism of THE SHEIK, this faintly comedic treatment, as hinted at by the title (the story is deliberately told in the style of "the Arabian Nights") keeps AN ARABIAN KNIGHT from making a social statement on race relations.
THE DRAGON PAINTER is far more straightforward and serious than these other films, yet its simple narrative resembles a fable. Madness and unrequited love are shown as the source of artistic inspiration, which may be lost once happiness is achieved. There are familiar motifs as well that resemble Hollywood depictions of Asians; here the wife apparently commits suicide so that her beloved husband may regain the artistic power he had lost as a satisfied spouse.
Ostensibly set in Japan, the treatment does resembles a foreign production more than a domestically-made film, despite the fact that it was again directed by the American Worthington, whose versatility was demonstrated by the vastly different THE TONG MAN and AN ARABIAN KNIGHT. Yet in many ways the Japanese flavor is belied from the outset, especially by transparent use of iconic American National Park Yosemite Valley as the location for the large outdoor portion of the movie. The Park's stirring beauty does enhance the visuals, and connects with the artist's depiction of the waterfalls he sees as concealing the woman he loves.
The mix of Asian players and yellow face show the degree to which audiences accepted such casting at the time, while today it strikes us as ludicrous at the least or an indication of underlying racism at worst. Yet here Edward Peil portrays the master Japanese artist who mentors Hayakawa's artist. Peil is cast as the father of Tsuru Aoki, the eventual inspiration and romantic partner to Hayakawa. The performance styles are compatible as there is no visible sign that either the Japanese players or the whites in yellowface considered such a duality anything but typical of the challenges of acting in their day. Certainly, as co-producer, Hayakawa could have cast another player than Peil had he wished.
The real revelation of THE DRAGON PAINTER is Aoki, often subsumed under the cloak of her husband's fame although she preceded him to the screen, and recommended him to Ince. In THE DRAGON PAINTER, while Hayakawa has the luxury of a flamboyant role that ricochets between madness and contented husband, Aoki must play a woman willing to sacrifice all for his artistic gifts-and yet also to enact a deceit that forms the movie's final twist. Aoki is a performer of sensitivity who conveys an enormous range of expression in a style perfectly suited to silent cinema, but also much less dated today than Hayakawa's more heavy-handed performance. She was the foremost female Asian star of the American cinema before she chose to abandon her status in 1922, placing marriage ahead of career when her husband left the United States. Anna May Wong would inherit her status with her starring role in THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922), but Aoki deserves to be better remembered, and not just in the shadow of her husband.