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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.17.11] action comedy drama kungfu

Year: 2011
Director: Haofeng Xu
Writer: Haofeng Xu
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Marina Antunes
Rating: 7 out of 10

There's a great scene early in Haofeng Xu's The Sword Identity which beautifully sets the tone for the rest of the film. Liang, a young and handsome wushu master, lays on his back barely paying attention as a beautiful gypsy dances provocatively. She begins to complain that he's not paying attention and that she wants to go to some event happening in town. He throws a handful of coins at her feet which quiets her for a few minutes until her friends come rolling in to pick-her up and she explains that she can't go because he paid too much. While most of the gathered crowd let nervous giggles escape from behind covered mouths, I burst into laughter. I couldn't help it - the pout on the woman's face as her friends gleefully took off was hilarious.

Xu's feature debut is a comedic play on the wushu drama. Largely devoid of wire-work and much more realistic than the average, Xu's film is also an entertaining comedy. The story unfolds in a city where four families rule as the keepers of martial arts. To start a new school, individuals have to prove their worth by fighting masters at each of the four schools but when he tries, Liang is pushed out of town. The schools believe his sword is of Japanese make and therefore forbidden by the Chinese purists and when Liang tries to explain that the sword is the same used by a celebrated Chinese General during the Japanese invasion, they refuse to listen calling him a Japanese pirate and setting the entire village on alert.

Liang won't take no for an answer and he devises a plan for proving his sword and his fighting style as worthy. Along the way he sets up a gypsy woman to fight off the soldiers who try to enter her little boat, he turns a group of soldiers into a coast guard swimming circles around the city and eventually, he fights off the four houses in a series of sequences that are skilfully choreographed and hilariously rendered with odd near-moves and a series of sound effects that clearly mark this as a comedy.

The fact that the sound effects are necessary is one of The Sword Identity's major faults. The film starts as a serious martial arts film, and watching the trailer you'll be hard pressed to think this is a comedy; it's played as a drama, and though it infuses a few bits of comedy early on, it plays like a serious drama and in some instances, including the final fight sequence, it feels as though Xu didn't trust the comedy to stand on its own, introducing the effects as a catalyst for laughs. It's not particularly distracting but it cheapens the film a little. The film's other problem is one that is typical of many wushu sagas: the convoluted story that in this case also introduces an old man who lives on the mountain and comes back for no apparent reason, a woman who I assume is the kept daughter of a master, and a romance that seems to develop out of thin air in the film's last 15 minutes.

The Sword Identity isn't the usual wushu action drama on the grand scale: the sets are beautiful but largely unadorned as are the characters and the fight sequences. This is a tale seeped in realism which, in its final sequence, visualizes the old vs. new style by pitting the old master with the young new-comer. It's not as grandiose as many of its predecessors but The Sword Identity is a hugely entertaining and refreshing take on a classic story.

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