Story: An unknown swordmaster (Song Yang) wants to fight his way through the lane of the Four Schools with his Japanese looking sword as
tradition tells that if you manage to defeat the other schools you may open your own. But because of his Japanese weapon the swordmaster is exempt from that
rule. The superior master of all four schools Qie (Ma Jun) also spreads the rumor that the swordfighter is in fact a Japanese pirate. Eventually, the warrior is
forced to barricade himself in a house with the dancer Sai Lan (Xu Fujing) and he shows the girl a secret martial arts technique that allows her to defeat
the approaching masters. At the same time the swordmaster secretly escapes and takes care of general Liu Kai (Liu Zhexin), who is also hot on his trails. After
the dancer has defeated almost every martial arts master, master Qiu (Yu Cheng-Hui) enters the stage, who up to that day has lived secluded on a mountain
because he didn't want to destroy the lives of his wife (Zhao Yuanyuan) and her lover Gan Gang (Ma Ke). But his wife still has a score to settle with him
and Qiu might also be too old to stand a chance against the swordmaster.
Review: What do you make of a problem child like "The Sword Identity"? The mesmerizing pictures and a fitting soundtrack
as well as the philosophy behind the martial arts introduced are convincing. The mysterious characters can win you over at some point, too, but all of this
is going lost in a muddled narration, which to make matters worse makes the movie drag on unnecessarily and leaves you in the dark about many of the
individuals. Moreover, all those who expect a martial arts flick will be disappointed. There is no action to be found here, it's more that the meaning and
philosophy of martial arts is standing in the focus, while at the same time the genre is made fun of with deadpan humor. This makes "The Sword Identity" an
extraordinary movie, but not necessarily one you need to watch.
You can somehow tell by looking at the movie: The story is based on a novel by Xu Haofeng which he adapted himself sitting on the director's chair. Considering
all the interwoven subplots and the different characters who almost don't reveal anything about themselves, it's only obvious that the story is better dealt with
in a book. In the beginning of the movie it's easy to lose track for a while since the introduction of different individuals doesn't seem to stop. And
this even though director Xu actually takes his time. Furthermore, all of the individuals share some sort of mutual background story, that shimmers through
in the small nuances of how they treat each other. This means that even at the end you will still find some stuff which would probably make the movie more
worthwhile on a second viewing.
Xu Haofeng has already worked on Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster" and you can make out a subtle way of making movies along
with a fondness for realism and mesmerizing pictures in his directorial debut, too. With time the unusual world Xu brings to screen turns out to be
the movie's true strength. "The Sword Identity" is a wuxia story and at the same time it also is a homage to this kind of world. Having a particularly strong
influence are Japanese chanbara movies, though. The influence of that geenre is constantly apparent and is also reflected in the way the fights are shot. There
is no fancy choreography, instead opponents dance around each other. The moment someone strikes is when the fight is over within only a few seconds.
Of course, this makes the disputes quite unspectacular, even the more as at some point it becomes obvious that no one is ever going to kick the bucket. This lack of suspense harms the movie a lot. Making up for that are some very interesting tactics that are outlined and shown as well. However, there are often scenes you don't know what to think of. This especially includes those in which a dancer, who has been shown a single technique, manages to take out numerous masters. This is probably one of the humoristic elements in which the martial arts' code of honor is poked fun at and where the dancer only wins because she is allowed to fight under conditions that favor her. Being well implemented though is that next to the bodyguard Qiu as well as Qie and the general of the coast guard all carry a different philosophy of what martial arts is about.
A lot is happening between the lines and it's in fact worthwhile to pay attention, even the more as the characters turn out to be pretty interesting as events unfold. The actors, especially those playing the old masters, are quite convincing and the chemistry between Qiu and Qie can be quite captivating. On the other hand it's unfortunate that the story is told in a very confusing manner and accordingly doesn't do itself or the viewer any favor. Because despite the art house nature the movie has, thanks to its nice sound effects and contemplative score, this approach simpy turns into boredom. Moreover, the movie is clearly too long with a running time of 110 minutes. The subtlety and philosophy of the wuxia world depicted could in fact resonate with me and there is without a doubt something good about "The Sword Identity". But it still can't be recommended to most viewers...