As part of the 9th Silent Film Festival some friends and I had the opportunity to see THE DRAGON PAINTER which was released in 1919.
The film was accompanied by a live performance by Master Benshi Midori Sawato and the Mark Izu Ensemble played along with an original score he composed for the film. Benshi is the art of speaking along with the silent movie to add depth to the screen characters. It ends up being a little like Mystery Science Theater 3000 without snarky comments.
The story stars Sessue Hayakawa as a painter who is convinced he has lost his muse to spirits. When he meets the character played by Tsuru Aoki, he is convinced she is his reincarnated muse. They marry, he still is "painter blocked" --- she then fakes her own death, he gets depressed, she reappears and he is reinvigorated -- able to paint again.
The film is remarkable given the context of the time it was produced in. This was a Hollywood that made Asian actors the villains and required their death at the end of the movie. "Yellow face" was common at this time and this movie isn't spared (Edward Peil), but the movie sought (and succeeded!) in portraying a story that was free from western cultural bias of the era.
It made me think of the movie indusry in the same way I think of the modern experimental art scene. People like Hayakawa (who opened his own production company) gave themselves the tools to display the type of art they wanted to see. Their only obstacle (besides racism) was creating the initial work. Because there wasn't a huge catalog of films, if you could do a good job at producing a movie, it would most likely get shown. Show business was not the formidable monster it is today.
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