TIFF 2011: THE SWORD IDENTITY Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

Everything old is new again in Xu Haofeng's The Sword Identity. Written and directed by the screenwriter for Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmasters - Xu also handles fight choreography here - The Sword Identity announces the arrival of a significant and unique new talent. Xu presents a fascinating fusion of influences with a film that owes as much to the classical styled Japanese chanbara films of the 70s and the austerity of the vintage American western - right down to the strategically placed screeching eagles scattered throughout the sound design, though they're never seen on screen - as it does to Chinese masters like King Hu. Though the tale of a wandering swordsman looking to create a legacy for his dead master is a familiar one Xu presents it with such a distinctive style that the whole affair comes to fresh life.

Song Yang stars as Liang Henlu, the faithful servant of a now dead General - a General who developed a new weapon and new fighting technique to fight off the Japanese pirates plaguing the coast. Though his methods were enormously successful this General's techniques are at risk of slipping away into obscurity with his passing and Liang wishes to establish a new martial arts school to keep his legacy alive. Easier said than done, however, as in order to do so he must first beat the masters of four martial arts schools and the final one refuses to fight him having mistaken his unusual - and unusually long - sword for a Japanese katana, the use of which is forbidden by the Chinese martial arts purists. And so Liang needs to use somewhat less direct tactics to get his case heard.

A philosophical and highly meditative approach to the genre punctuated by impressively realistic forays into on screen action and sharp bursts of humor, The Sword Identity is completely unlike any martial arts picture of the past twenty years. In addition to his film work Xu is a respected novelist and scholar and though he certainly aims to entertain his audience with the picture he also has goals beyond that, goals to present a larger and more encompassing philosophy and system of thought that often gets lost in the outright search for spectacle.

Xu's characters are rich and complex people - the tension between the old ways and the new, the melting pot of different cultures within mainland China, the conflict between love and honor all factoring in to their behavior. He doesn't shy away from articulating the philosophies behind each of the arts at play, frequently taking the time to present the various masters' thought processes as they sort through which technique and strategy may be most appropriate to each situation and why. He does this in an entirely visual way, capturing each option and its consequences on screen taking great care to show rather than just telling, and the result is a fascinating look into the psychology of his players.

But more than just presenting an intellectual portrait of the forces at play Xu gives his characters character. Though his mission is a serious one Liang has a sly playfulness to him, one matched by the gypsy girl who he enlists as an ally and by the leader of the local Coast Guard who wants nothing in life more than a suit of iron armor. On the other side of the coin an aging master returned from the mountains when he hears (false) word of a Japanese pirate attacking his ancestral home fills the picture with a deep soul, a tragic story of love gone wrong.

The Sword Identity will never be mistaken for an adrenaline fueled adventure and god bless it for that. There are more than enough people traveling that road right now and Xu provides a very welcome trip in another direction. The level or art and craftsmanship in his work is remarkable and he is possessed with a strong and sure authorial voice. May this be the first of many from the multi-talented director.
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