The narrative problems that dogged Xu Haofeng’s debut, “The Sword Identity,” plague his equally murky followup, “Judge Archer.” Xu, a scholar of traditional martial arts rather than their showy cinematic variant, showcases stylized fighting rituals that haven’t been seen onscreen before (according to the pressbook), and while these less kinetic matches are fascinating, they would be better showcased amid a more comprehensible plot. Mostly set in 1920, and revolving around an arbiter of disputes between rival martial-arts schools, the pic will draw devotees of the artsier form of the genre, but elude broader appeal.
Judge Archer (Song Yang, “The Sword Identity”) obtains his title, signifying his position as mediator of martial-arts school conflicts, after fleeing his past life and the trauma of seeing his sister raped. Haunted by recurring images of his violated sibling and the guilt he feels at abandoning her, the judge is trained by an old master, and then wanders the countryside, his bow and arrow acting as the symbols of his new profession.
Approached by Erdong (Yenny Martin), a striking woman given to mannish attire who seeks to avenge her father’s death, the judge goes undercover as a fruit vendor to spy on Kuang Yimin (Yu Chenghui). Kuang, a master of ancient martial-arts forms, knows he’s being set up, and sends his beautiful young wife, Yue Yahong (Li Chengyuan), in the guise of a put-upon opera singer, to seduce the judge and thwart Erdong’s designs.
In keeping with the staccato nature of the martial-arts moves, many scenes start abruptly and finish by offering snippets of atmosphere or plot, but are too incomplete to provide much satisfactory detail; occasional flashbacks add to the confusion. The judge’s emotional pain comes through clearly, though the disputes he’s meant to adjudicate are nearly incomprehensible, and none of the other characters have graspable personalities.
Fortunately, what the film lacks in narrative drive is partly compensated for by handsome production design, with attractive sets as well as a few stunning locations. As a record of a lost art form now superseded by CGI-enhanced kung fu moves, “Judge Archer” has a certain value, and the melancholy of the protag is likely a mirror of the helmer’s sadness in the face of a dying way of life. However, auds interested but not completely well-versed in ancient fighting methods would do well to read up on the production beforehand, as the import of techniques such as a seated duel will probably be lost without background explanation.