Not your typical Chinese sword-fighting movie!
To establish his school, a swordsman must defeat the 4 grandmasters of martial arts. But his original weapon is mistaken for a Japanese sword, and thus forbidden…
THE FALSE HOPES?
Writer, critic, martial arts artist and now director, Xu Haofeng is bringing his personal knowledge to wu xia films – adapting here one of his own novels. This knowledge appears at every levels of this work, the historical period, the weapons used, the martial skills, the dialect spoken… The Sword Identity is trying to be as authentic as possible!
For a first-feature film, it’s quite an original take on the genre! Even though, the story proves to be sometimes satirical, It also explores some martial arts-related themes: the idea of legacy, to believe in one’s self, to master an art… That looks intriguing? Just wait!
BORE ‘EM ALL
The Sword Identity is filled with some really interesting ideas that are poorly executed. It’s like the film is overthinking the genre, instead of embracing it. With the director overplaying with the genre’s conventions.
The few fights of the film are shot off-screen, the choreography is showing some kind of dance where fighters are trying each other out before making the ultimate move. In fact, the only real move of the fight. Knowing, it’s never about killing the other. A down-to-earth realistic approach with no thrills..
Behind this conception of action scenes, there’s a satire. As an example, during the film, the director constantly uses one idea (!!!) where basically, the best martial artists are defeated in one move.
THE RULES OF COMPLEXITY
Reading between the lines, the story offers lots of great possibilities, where each character is facing a challenge, forced to reconsider one’s understanding of martial arts. Unfortunately, the narrative is so conceptual & foggy, it’s hard to understand what’s happening. Or to care about the characters.
For example, the main swordsman spends most of the film testing other people, or swimming with some prisoners… While the four grandmasters are trying to enter into some boat-house. Which sums up the first hour of the film! At least, it allows the audience to imagine what’s going on, to see how smart & determine is the swordsman, and how stupid arrogant are the grandmasters. Well done, you make your own story! Boring? Yep.
BORN TO WRITE
For this really slow-paced film, the director has kept a minimalist approach, with long length shots, and sometimes nice ideas using the environment – a frame within the frame – but overall, nothing too fancy. Great cinematography though (plus some continuity errors).
And it feels like a literary film, with Xu Haofeng thinking more like a novel writer than a moviemaker/visual storyteller. Take the the story, it’s well-thought & deep, but it doesn’t translate into the big screen – except for some ideas, the earring to detect shadows, the collar.
The Sword Identity is an original attempt to bring realism into the Chinese sword-fighting movie. But then boredom ensues, the narrative is foggy, repeating the same idea over and over again, with no character development or empathy…
The film is just too conceptual, too abstract to be enjoyable. If you’re looking for another interesting recent wu xia film, well, try Wu Xia — 3.5/10.
(side note: Xu Haofeng worked on Wong Kar-wai’s Grandmasters, he’s credited as a co-worker. One can guess, he may have brought authenticity into the project)