NYAFF Review: The Sword Identity


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

If you watch Lionsgate’s domestic trailer for The Sword Identity, you’d think the film was a rip-roaring, action-packed swordsman film; the sort of movie brimming with hard-hitting choreography and wall-to-wall fights. Even the Toronto International Film Festival trailer makes this seem like a serious Chinese chivalry movie.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Sword Identity is NOT that kind of movie. The Lionsgaate trailer in particular is the equivalent of marketing Jim Jarmusch’s stone-faced Dead Man as a Spaghetti Western, or the meditative Twilight Samurai as a bloody chambara slashfest.

The Sword Identity is more of a deadpan satire of martial arts films, taking genre conventions and giving them a twist. Taken in those terms, the ideas underlying the film work. As for the film itself, that’s another story.

The Sword Identity (Wo Kou De Zong Ji)
Director: Haofeng Xu
Rating: PG-13
Country: China

I mentioned in the review of War of the Arrows how so many movies tend to rely on swordplay as a centerpiece of their action rather than missile weapons or ranged weapons (save for guns). There’s the obvious phallic thing going on (which explains guns), but there’s also a vital cultural pride and cultural identity linked to swords. Think the Crusading knight’s longsword versus the Arab scimitar; or the Chinese taijijian versus the Japanese katana. The Chinese swordsman/Japanese swordsman divide is the starting point for The Sword Identity.

Two men enter town wishing to start their own martial arts school. To do so, they need to best the four masters of the existing schools, but they are immediately rebuffed and accused of wielding katanas. And yet you notice that something’s off about the situation. Once those blades are drawn, they obviously aren’t katanas. They’re much longer, they’re straight rather than slightly curved, and there’s something about they way they’re wielded which doesn’t fit with traditional samurai swordplay. The two swordsmen are chased and accused of being Japanese pirates; Song Yang (Henlu Liang) flees and plots the rescue of his older friend.

Japanese-looking swords that aren’t really Japanese swords — it’s the first of many ideas of authenticity at the root The Sword Identity. There’s also fake armor than looks like real armor, the Japanese pirates who are not Japanese pirates, fighting that looks like dancing, combat that looks like play, warriors beaten by non-warriors, and kung-fu masters that are effete. A wizened old master (Dong Yue Qiu) comes down from his mountain to hunt the supposed Japanese pirates and he tries to conceal his true age. It’s this silly, subversive, irreverent part of the movie that presents a lot of intellectually interesting ideas about what is real and what is invention and what is real about the nature of invention.

This is especially true of some of the fight scenes. There aren’t many, but they’re extensions of the ideas in the film and inversions of wuxia genre conventions. The choreography isn’t flashy or over the top, but grounded and crafty. It’s interesting to watch since it’s more about sizing people up rather than taking them down. In one case, it’s more feints and footwork than actual blows exchanged. The fighters make adjustments to account for actions that their opponents take. It’s not your usual martial arts fight; it’s not even a boxing match or a chess game. It’s more like hot hands or competitive cat’s cradle.

The most lethal moments come in the calculations and fantasies of the wizened old master. With Song Yang supposedly cornered, he observes the battle tactics carefully. He considers his options and then the film shows how these options play out in his mind. These what-if scenarios of fighting are deadlier than the actual combat; and the fantasies of martial arts badassery are much different in mind than in practice. Again, there’s the dichotomy: he’s a master in his head, but perhaps only in his head; and yet, isn’t that where mastery lies, especially when he reads the situation so well?

Amid all these contradictions and ideas in action, there are a couple good laughs. Liang plays Song Yang with the physicality of a squirrel much of the time — angular, robotic, too quick, too agitated. A lot of the comedy in the film comes from the punchline undercutting a dire set-up. The characters take themselves too seriously and the film takes them down a notch or two.

Yet for all that The Sword Identity has going for it, it seems like it can’t quite build toward bigger ideas or a satisfying conclusion. The way it wraps is essentially a restatement of its ideas rather than punctuation. Yes, the formalism and rituals of traditional martial arts as depicted in these sorts of movies can be very silly, and yes there’s an undercurrent of bathos in these kinds of martial arts movies, but what more?

Interesting ideas can only bring you so far, and while I appreciate philosophical subtexts and meditations on what is real and what is fake, it’s never sufficient in itself. What’s missing is a leap — a leap in ideas or a leap in the story. There doesn’t need to be an outright thesis about what is authentic or some overt declaration about what is artifice, but there does need to be something extra. It’s a little hard to phrase, maybe, but I wanted to feel like I’d come to the end of the book rather than arrived at page 60 again.

And that’s the frustrating element of The Sword Identity: it presents rich ideas and a fascinating conceit, but it never coheres or goes anywhere — not plotwise or characterwise or even intellectually. And while it sataraizes the genre of chivalric martial arts to some degree, it feels like it’s holding back. In writer/director Haofeng Xu’s head the movie must have worked out perfectly, but the film shows us that such things work differently when put into practice. Still, I look at what’s there with the swords and the subtext and the setup for comedy, and I wonder “What if…?”

[The Sword Identity will be screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Sunday, July 1st at 1:00 PM and Wednesday, July 11th at 6:00 PM]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.