Monday, June 09, 2008


Tatsu (Sessue Hayakawa) is a tormented artist and wild mountain man who is obsessed by the idea that his "princess" was turned into a dragon a thousand years ago, and he incessantly paints landscapes with dragons visible only to him; when an observer asks where the dragon is in one drawing, he replies that it's sleeping under the lake. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, respected but aging artist Kano Indara (Edward Peil Sr.) is sad because he has no son or other suitable heir to mentor in the ways of art—his daughter Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa's wife), being a woman, is apparently not eligible. When a surveyor discovers some of Tatsu's work, he gets the artist to come to Tokyo and work with Indara; as bait, they tell him that Ume-Ko is his missing princess. Soon, Tetsu is fully tamed (nice haircut and modern civilized clothes), tutored, and married, but his contentment gives him "artist's block"; since he now has his princess/muse, he is no longer inspired to create. Ume-Ko vanishes, leaving a note saying she has killed herself in order in inspire him once again, and sure enough, in his grief, he starts producing paintings again, enough for a successful exhibition. He begins seeing haunting visions of Ume-Ko; is it possible he can somehow get her back?

The Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa is best known as the war camp commandant in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, but back in the teens, he was an "exotic" Hollywood matinee idol, rivaling Valentino. He had his own production company which made almost 20 films between 1918 and 1922, most of which are apparently lost. If you only know him from KWAI, he will be a revelation here: young, attractive, and charismatic. He is especially effective as the "untamed" artist. The acting is fine, generally more subtle than we think of most silent-movie emoting. There is a lovely nighttime garden scene which was shot day-for-night but is tinted blue. It's a shame that more of Hayakawa's films of this era haven't survived. [TCM]

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