Wednesday, June 27, 2012

NYAFF ’12: The Sword Identity

The Ming Dynasty valued stability.  For the four martial arts masters of coastal Guancheng, a new discipline based on forbidden Japanese swords represents anything but.  The nameless warrior will have to prove his late master’s sword the hard way in Xu Haofeng’s The Sword Identity (trailer here), which screens during the eagerly anticipated 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Anyone who has seen Donnie Yen, this year’s Star Asia Award recipient, in the Ip Man franchise knows full well what a new master in town has to do before they can open a new school.  They have to fight through the martial arts establishment, even if that means going toe-to-toe with Sammo Hung on a rickety table top.  Coincidentally, Xu is the screenwriter for Wong Kar-wai’s long-awaited competing Ip Man epic, so he must have an affinity for innovative masters.

The unnamed swordsman and a somewhat less fierce comrade duly smack their way through the first three vested interests, but the fourth will be a trickier proposition.  Labeling them Japanese pirates because of their sword, the acting fourth Master Qie and his predecessor, the reclusive Qiu Dongyue, will not play ball.  Suddenly a fugitive, the man with no name teaches a foreign dancing girl (and potential love interest) Sailan a secret move to hold off all comers, while he sneaks over to Qie’s, spoiling for a fight.  Again, he cannot connect with his slippery nemesis, but there he enlists the unfaithful wife of old Qiu to similarly defeat hordes of martial artists single-handed, allowing him to continue his skulking about.

Essentially, the swordsman’s second secret move boils down to blindsiding people as they come through the door, but Xu makes it sound mysterious and mystical.  If it works, it works.  The sword is what is really important.  The invention of the nameless man’s master, the late illustrious General Qi Jiguang, it was devised specifically to counter the verboten swords employed by real Japanese pirates, which makes its current identity crisis so frustrating for the disciple.  Indeed, Identity is more about notions of legacy and loyalty than martial arts spectacles.

Still, there are some memorable fight scenes in Identity, but Xu’s approach is distinguished more by its cleverness than full-throttled adrenaline.  While some of the drama going on with Qiu, Qie, and Madame Qie is a bit awkward, there is some nice chemistry developed between the swordsman and Sailan, played by Song Yang and Xu Fujing, respectively.  Frankly, they should have had more scenes together.

The austere look of Identity is a refreshing change of pace from the many lushly produced post-Crouching Tiger Wuxia epics, chocked full of CGI.  Song Yang is an engaging Spaghetti Western martial artist and Sailan’s attractive dancer colleagues provide some appealing comic relief (though not so much the pompous officer of the guard they adopt).  Distinctive and ultimately quite satisfying, The Sword Identity screens this Sunday (7/1) and Wednesday after next (7/11) as part of this year’s NYAFF.