Wu xia can be a fantastically exciting movie genre when done correctly. The costumes, the melodrama, the grand scale action set pieces, even the more intimate but no less impressive one-on-one combative contests. Directors frequently take the opportunity to present the thousands of individuals who engaged in such warfare, from the generals to the most common of foot soldiers, seem quite heroic and worthy of special commemoration. With a little bit of the proverbial ‘thinking outside the box’, a writer and director can find some comedic value inherent in the traditions and discipline exercised by these battalions. Haofeng Xu, an accomplished screenwriter, brings forth his directorial debut, The Sword Identity, a film which poses a different look at the world of these mighty, nearly mythic figures.
In a slowly developing scene, two unknown warriors creep and crawl their way along the walls of a citadel in ancient China. They are assaulted by its guards. The two infiltrators prove worthy adversaries, dispatching their assailants with cunning speed and efficiency, until one of them is captured. The other younger one, Liang Henlu (Yang Song), flees the premise, but vows to return to free his collaborator. The warriors who fended off their unwanted visitors lay claim to the beautiful weapon wielded by the enemy they caught. To their surprise, it is a sword with distinct Japanese influences, a crucial (and cultural) taboo if there ever was one. The captive tries to plea his case, explaining that he is a former student of the long dead general Qi, who in fact taught them that to defeat the invading Japanese, such a weapon proves the most effective. While he is held in the clutches of the suspicious officials, Liang Henlu uses all his wits, as well as the compliance of a beautiful foreign prostitute, to free his friend and finally explain his true intentions.
The Sword Identity is a difficult film to classify. There is so much transpiring in it, both influencing its its narrative and its themes, that Xu’s picture seems to defy classification altogether. Even the origin of its style is not quite like what the Chinese typically bring to the table when exploring the Wu xia genre, borrowing from both the American westerns and the Japanese samurai films in depicting the situational conflicts throughout the story. What the audience is given is, for all intents and purposes, an interpretation of the great warriors of the past, their personalities and discipline, through the lens’ of a light comedy, even though the movie is not trying to be funny in every scene. It both respects this period of Chinese history all the while recognizing that some elements of it were ripe for at least a few laughs. Confused? Please, don’t be. As already stated, Sword Identity gives a little bit of everything.
The first thing one notices about Xu’s endeavour is that, despite the light pokes it strikes at the era, there is a deep respect towards it, one quite evident by observing the love and care that went into the craftsmanship. The movie moves along at a beautiful, languid pace, which mirrors the tactical manoeuvres of the warriors within the story. These are not hyperactive ninjas with swords. Rather, they know that a fight, especially a fight in which one carries large weapons and plenty of heavy armour, requires one to make slow moves and strike only when an opening presents itself. Dispense as little energy as possible is the mantra for these heroes. This notion plays out in the editing and cinematography processes, as director Xu and his collaborators are tremendously careful and judicious with the camera movements and cuts. Rarely is there a cut which feels out of place or forced, something many a contemporary action movie can be faulted for. Just as the combatants themselves are conditioned to exercise patience, so is the audience. Anyone hoping for a fast paced, thrill-a-minute adventure film is sure to leave the movie disappointed. There are some great moments of brilliant cinematography wherein the camera will behave as it does in the old samurai films, with long tracking shots, each centimetre revealing something new to the audience. Other times Xu will make the bold decision of simply having the camera rest at a specific location while two or more characters exchange dialogue. No cuts from one head shot to the next back and forth, just a simple, carefully chosen location with the actors allowed to freely deliver their stoic dialogue. The score is also delicately used, with slow, rhythmic beats utilizing only a sparse few instruments accompanying the on screen action.
And yet, all the while Haofeng Xu reveals this world to the audience with care, detail and even a great degree of respect, he simultaneously has fun with the same revered traditions. What’s more, the brand of comedy infuses both wit and slapstick all into one. As Liang Henlu concocts a plan to retrieve his friend from the clutches of the enemy, the latter who believe him to be a Japanese pirate, he convinces a prostitute to come to his aid. What follows, which shall not be revealed here, is wildly entertaining. For all their knowledge practice and years of on the field experience, the guards and generals have a world of trouble trapping Liang Henlu. The protagonist, also extremely knowledgeable of the martial arts in both their primitive and advanced forms, gets incredible mileage out of his unexpected allies along the way. Sometimes, all the weapons and preparation in the world is insufficient if the opponent understands the other side’s greatest weakness: overconfidence. The comedy stems from the character’s cunning and results in some very funny slapstick-influenced moments. A wonderful combination used to great effect by director Xu.
If there is only one fault about this modest picture, it would be in some instance when the characters are in the midst of performing their expertly calculated moves with lighting quick speed. True enough, earlier in this review the editing and cinematography were praised to the high heavens, yet in these moments they do, if only occasionally, fail the film. It would appear Haofeng Xu knew exactly what to do in giving the audience beautiful, tender, portrait-like renditions of the world, but was more unsure of how to proceed when actual fighting occurs. Not every action sequence is hindered with awkwardly chopping editing, some look quite good, but a few are unmistakably messy.
The Sword Identity for the most part plays its cards surprisingly well. It seems doubtful anyone asked to imagine what to expect from a Wu xia film which was both visually artistic, deliberately pace and featured slapstick could easily envision what is to come. Haofeng Xu gives us a pretty clear indication that such an unorthodox combination works. Apparently Wu xia can be a laughing matter.