During the Ming Dynasty, four fighting schools exist in the city of Guancheng and anyone who wishes to set up a new establishment must prove their worth in battle. When ex-soldier Liang Henlu turns up wishing to set up his own school, the martial arts masters mistake his (very long) sword for a forbidden Japanese weapon and believe him to be a Japanese pirate. They capture and torture his companion and banish Liang from the city (but keep his sword).
Liang (Yang Song) then sets about on a course to retrieve his mentor and his prized weapon, and regain his pride by besting the masters in combat. He feels he owes it to his general to pass on his master’s teachings at a new school. Making clever use of a couple of young ladies who fall for his laid-back charm and athletic charisma, he makes the masters think that they are taking on a deadly pirate who can seemingly be in two places at once…
Haofeng Xu makes his directorial debut with this Chinese martial arts film adapted from his own novel. And, in that sentence is everything that is wrong with The Sword Identity. Having a director adapt his own source material can work really well sometimes, but can also mean that scenes which may have worked well on the page are kept in a film that really doesn’t need them or they should have been adapted more rigorously for the screen, and maybe in a more succinct way.
Xu obviously loves his often quirky characters and, as a result, there are too many scenes which really slow down the main story’s drive forward and, therefore, can frustrate the viewer who just wants to get on with the story in hand.
Don’t get me wrong, The Sword Identity is not an awful film – it’s beautifully shot, well-acted and really delivers on authenticity for the period in question. However, it’s so slow that it really drags, making it feel as though it lasts for three hours and not a little under two! This is a shame really as I sensed this could have been an excellent martial arts film if it hadn’t have gotten so bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life for the various characters it focuses on.
The Sword Identity has a rather strange narrative structure and I found myself rather confused as to what was actually happening, even after thirty minutes into the movie. Not a good start. I found myself asking: who would this film appeal to? It certainly doesn’t really contain enough fight scenes to satisfy most martial arts fans, who are now being offered the likes of Ip-Man, Ong-Bak and The Raid. In fact the few fight scenes there are, are all rather disappointingly brief and not particularly well choreographed. Even the final fight is anti-climactic. Clearly the director is more interested in the history of martial arts and the theories behind it rather than in showing it in any great detail.
On the plus side the film utilises some interesting locations, displays some quirky humour and features a nice robust sound mix, apart from a few scarcely audible lines here and there. It also has nice, easy-to-read subtitles, which I, for one, appreciated.
MVM Entertainment have recently released The Sword Identity on DVD. The only extras on the disc I was sent were a few trailers for Wushu, The Kick and Bangkok Assassins, but there might be some on the retail version.