Nifty martial-arts moves and shots of smart satire are undercut by muddled plotting and a running time that’s far too long for the slim story of “The Sword Identity.” The uneven helming debut of Chinese author and scholar Xu Haofeng (screenwriter of Wong Kar Wai’s upcoming Ip Man actioner “The Grandmasters”), this period drama about a mysterious swordsman taking on the whole town may appeal to students of the genre but faces a mighty battle attracting a wider audience. Following a high-profile international launch at Venice, Toronto and Busan fests, the pic opens in China on Nov. 30.
Adapting his own novella as well as editing the film and serving as action choreographer, Xu injects plenty of punch into the opening sequences in which an unnamed swordsman (Song Yang) arrives in the coastal town of Shuangye and announces plans to open a martial-arts school. Local rules demand hopefuls can set up shop only after they’ve defeated fighters from all four of the town’s established academies.
The trouble for the swordsman is that he’s carrying what appears to be a Japanese weapon and is disqualified under laws forbidding the use of foreign arms. The enforcer of the code and uber-boss of all four schools is Qie (Ma Jun), who convinces everyone the stranger is really a Japanese pirate. In truth, he’s the last surviving bodyguard of a famous Chinese general who defeated Japanese invaders with swords modeled on those of his enemies.
With eye-catching combat and bone-dry satire of the unyielding rules and regulations governing martial-arts disciplines, the story motors along nicely as the swordsman outguns and outruns an army of would-be assassins and holes up in a boat housing a quartet of traveling dancing girls. Entertainment level peaks at around the half-hour mark, when the swordsman gives a crash course in fighting to bubbly hoofer Sailan (Xu Fujing), enabling her to hold off the hordes while he sneaks back into town.
At this point, the narrative bogs down and humor all but disappears in lengthy and convoluted forays into the activities of boss Qie and Qiu Dongyue (Yu Chenghui), an ancient master who’s come down from his mountain retreat to take on the swordsman. Many auds will find it difficult to keep track of revolving-door personnel and plot mechanics involving Qiu’s much younger wife, Madame Qiu (Zhao Yuanyuan); her bodyguard lover, Gan Gang (Ma Ke); and Liu Kai (Liu Zhexin), the blustery commander of the local coast guard.
Perfs are more engaging than the stop-start storyline. Newcomer Song is likable as the invincible hero, Xu is a delight as his game comrade-in-arms, and veterans Yu and Ma Jun are rock-solid as the establishment figures.
Filmed in muted tones that give a distinctly different look from that of most comparable martial-arts films, “The Sword Identity” sports the impeccable costuming and production design of the late-Ming-dynasty China. Other technical work is pro.