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The Sword Identity

The Sword Identity

Song Yang looks for some jiang hu recognition in The Sword Identity.

Chinese: 倭寇的蹤跡  
Year: 2011  
Director: Xu Haofeng
Producer: Xu Haofeng
Writer: Xu Haofeng
Cast: Song Yang, Zhao Yuanyuan, Yu Chenghui, Ma Jun, Xu Fujing, Ma Ke, Yao Weiping
The Skinny: Despite the subject matter, The Sword Identity is too dry and cerebral to engage genre fans, and perhaps a bit too esoteric to reel in the arthouse crowd. Still, this is a smart swordplay satire that shows a gratifying love and understanding of wuxia pian. Xu Haofeng is worth keeping an eye on.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Xu Haofeng turns martial arts fiction on its head in The Sword Identity. Also the screenwriter of Wong Kar-Wais upcoming The Grandmasters, Xu makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of his own novella. Sword Identity follows two swordsmen as they attempt to defeat a series of martial arts schools in a rural town. Local jiang hu states that besting the schools will allow them to open their own on Wuyi Lane alongside the very schools they just defeated. The two want their own school to pass on the teachings of their departed master, General Qi, whose use of a long Japanese-style sword is both unorthodox and startlingly effective. However, the current schools seem less interested in new swordplay styles than they are in maintaining the status quo, choosing to arrest the swordsmen with a show of force rather than face them in fair combat.

However, one of the swordsmen (Song Yang, playing a nameless character), escapes and goes about dismantling the towns pompous, self-satisfied martial artists. Most, including top dog Qie (Ma Jun) think predictably, such that the unnamed swordsman can have his way with a little against-the-grain thinking. They think hes trapped on a boat, but he instructs a foreign courtesan (Xu Fujing) to sit inside and use a bamboo pole to take out anyone, from foot soldiers to supposed sword masters, with a single strike, thereby fooling them into thinking hes still inside. Then he simply swims out the back and goes on to terrorize local militia and make eyes at the cynical Madam Qiu (Zhao Yuanyuan). While the swordsman has fun with the locals, Madam Qius estranged husband, once-supreme swordsman Qiu Dongyue (Yu Chenghui) paints his white beard black and heads into town to reclaim his status as the number one sword master. His target: the unnamed swordsman, naturally.

Sword Identity sounds like an enormous joke on swordplay fiction — and that's pretty much what it is, though not in an obvious way. Xu Haofeng aims for a satirical ribbing of the swordplay genre, but does so very dryly. Though there's plenty of room here for a laugh track, Xu never gets celebratory with his jokes; humor comes from the ridiculous juxtaposition between fictional expectation and realistic result, with audience knowledge of genre convention meant to bridge the gap. This is an anti-swordplay film for knowing audiences, in which the characters act like they're in a storied martial arts novel but nobody gets the legendary or glorious results that they expect. "Heroes" talk a great game, but when it's all over, they're left grandly justifying their very understandable failures. Film style is similarly down-to-earth, with flat compositions and a subdued color palette appearing drab and unexciting, but also providing an ironic backdrop to the lofty aspirations of its characters.

On a creative level, Sword Identity is noteworthy, as its cerebral parody offers plenty to discuss. Where the film obviously falls short is as visceral entertainment; some fans of swordplay — i.e., those who are after genre gratification — had best steer clear. There is action, but it's decidedly short and clipped (too many one-strike knockouts) or leisurely and humorous (guys endlessly circling each other, feinting like amateur boxers). Likewise, the discussions of swordplay technique and jiang hu concepts cease being engaging after one too many expository passages, and the film's emotional musings are empty ones. There are minor payoffs, like ironic slapstick or circular story connections, but Sword Identity lacks a larger point beyond its moment-to-moment satire. Xu Haofeng needs to be bolder if he wants to fully satirize his subject; otherwise the film only works as sardonic, knowing observation. Regardless, Sword Identity is an original and intelligent work — a rare thing in this world of recycled cinema ideas. Xu Haofeng possesses a smart voice and an informed affection for the very genre he chooses to send-up. That alone makes his next move worth watching. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2011)

 
Availability: DVD (China)
Region 6 PAL
Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
English and Chinese Subtitles
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