The Sword Identity is the debut film from director Xu Haofeng. At first glance this film looked like a typical historical martial arts film, with plenty of action, but on closer inspection The Sword Identity seemed like it could be a very unique film. The multi-talented Xu has drawn on his knowledge of martial arts, Taoism and Chinese culture to create something more than a martial arts film. Xu gives the audience a look at the internal aspect of martial arts and the people who dedicate their lives to a technique, while shying away from the external aspect of martial arts, the actual fighting, which audiences should already be very familiar with.
The film tells the story of two wanderers in Southern China, seeking to prove their technique in the city of Guancheng. Within the city walls, four families, each with a martial arts school, mistake the wanderers for Japanese pirates, due to the unusually long swords the wanderers are carrying. The wanderers are not given a chance to prove the worth of their technique, but are driven away. During the conflict, one of the wanderers is taken captive, while the other takes shelter in a house boat, and defends it from the city’s soldiers using his superior technique.
Visually, The Sword Identity is a beautiful film. Vistas of mountains seen through rows of trees, expanses of wetlands and even the river running through the city of Guancheng are a pleasure to behold. The cinematography has a very unique feel to it and aside from the action scenes, I would say that it is a big part of the film’s charm. Also, a lot of time must have been spent designing the lovely period costumes that adorn the characters. Unfortunately, the action sequences in the film are a bit of a snooze-fest. I understand that action may have not been the primary goal of the film, far from it, but when the 10th or so character gets bopped on the head with a stick and falls down unconscious, it is hard not to groan. One of the more interesting aspects of the action are the sequences in which characters imagine how they will go about winning a fight before they make a move. I could certainly see this technique being lifted from The Sword Identity by future martial arts films.
The story of the film has a few strong points, but ultimately wasn’t as interesting as I hoped it would be. As I have said already, the focus is on the internal aspect of martial arts, rather than the physical techniques that win fights. Anyone that sits down to watch this hoping for action will be sorely disappointed. The traditional fighting certainly has some interesting qualities, but at times looks like a fight broke out at some sort of ninja retirement home. The story is definitely more philosophical and cerebral, but even as I experienced this side of The Sword Identity it still felt like something was lacking. The characters are often unpredictable, because not enough time has been taken to introduce them to the audience. Aside from the main character and the coast guard Captain, who was quite funny, I didn’t really feel like investing any time in these characters.
The visuals are great at times and attention to detail really makes this feel like a period piece, however there are too many issues with The Sword Identity to make it an enjoyable viewing experience from start to finish. I don’t think I would recommend The Sword Identity, however, since it is a debut film and there were some positives, I will be looking out for the next project by Xu Haofeng.