Authenticity is a big deal in the martial arts world. The matter should be easy to resolve – who wins? – but in practice, even the experts don’t always agree about “winning.” A lot of variables can come into play, which may be another way of saying excuses can always be made. Chinese martial artists have emphasized tradition and lineage as signifiers of authenticity. Now scholars are beginning to look at the historical record, and trying to document the development of what the world knows as kung fu. One of the best recent books in English is Peter Lorge’s “Chinese Martial Arts from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century.” It provides an historical context for the story of THE SWORD IDENTITY, the new film by writer/director Xu Haofeng, which was just released on dvd from Lionsgate.
THE SWORD IDENTITY takes place late in the 16th century, at a time when the Ming Dynasty was at peace. China’s armed forces, seen by the central government as a useless expense, are weak. The stagnation of the Ming court and deterioration of the army will eventually lead to the fall of the dynasty. The last great military campaign, led by the legendary general Qi Jiguang, was against the wokou, Japanese pirates who harassed China’s eastern coast. In addition to being a master strategist, Qi wrote one of the earliest manuals on martial arts. Literary documents referencing boxing and weaponry in the civilian world become relatively common in this period. Some of the first written martial arts stories also appear, probably based on earlier ballads or “operas” performed by professional entertainers.
Xu Haofeng has set his tale of tradition vs innovation very deliberately in this world of the late Ming. Tradition is represented by the four schools of Wuyi Lane, the guardians of swordplay orthodoxy. Three of the schools are paper tigers – cardboard, just like the armor the local garrison commander wears – but chief of the fourth school is Master Qie (Ma Jun), the local big man. The only thing that keeps him from dominating the martial world is his “elder brother,” the double spear master Qiu Dongyue (Yu Chenghui). Qiu is the better martial artist, but he has been living in self-imposed exile after discovering his young wife had an affair. Yu is a revelation here, especially for those who have only seen him in 1980s classics like SHAOLIN TEMPLE and YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER. Sure, he has real kung fu, and when he shows his neigong and fajin skills in the movie, you just want to get down on your knees and thank Xu for recording this stuff. But in THE SWORD IDENTITY, Xu Haofeng and the 73 year old Yu Chenghui also give us a Lear-like portrait of an aging fighter, who was once Number One and now is not as strong. He struggles with it. And he’s still vain, especially around the pretty young women who have always been his weakness. Yu’s Qiu Dongyue embodies the Taoist ideal of the eccentric loner who spends a lifetime mastering subtle techniques which he then puts to use for the good of the community. Master Qie represents a more Confucian model, a man who uses power to occupy what he sees as his rightful place in society.
The masters of Wuyi Lane have decreed that no one can open a new sword school without first defeating all four schools. As the film opens, a pair of swordsmen have arrived in town, challenging the masters for the right to teach. They use an outlandish weapon: an extremely long blade with an angled tip and a long smooth two-handed grip. When sheathed, it works as a staff. Unsheathed, it becomes long sword and short stick. Both edges of the blade are blunt for blocking; only the tip is sharp. Superficially it resemble an elongated Japanese sword, and that is where the mischief starts. The upstart swordsmen are accused of using a foreign weapon. Their reply is that they are a former officer and bodyguard of General Qi, and the sword is a unique weapon of his design that they wish to pass on. Master Qie has no desire to admit another school, and he allows the rumor to spread that the intruders are wokou, Japanese pirates. This sets up the film’s central conflict, as the military veterans square off against the schools.
Which side shows the true spirit of martial arts? Military tactics put a premium on pragmatism. A “military genius” can recruit allies among the local population, and knows tricks that a raw young recruit can use to defeat a seasoned master, tricks that rely on the younger person’s faster reflexes. Military expediency sees no fault in appropriating useful features of your enemy’s weapons. On the other hand, civilian martial arts practice includes spiritual and moral dimensions, shuns trickery and ambush, and constantly strives for ever more rarified abilities. It embraces both the anarchy of Taoism and the hierarchy of Confucianism, neither of which work particularly well on the battlefield. Much of the sly humor of THE SWORD IDENTITY is drawn from the tension between the ideals and slapstick reality of the martial world.
The film is beautifully shot, with a Zen-like spareness to the compositions. Xu, who also choreographed and edited the film, chooses to cut away from the action at times to linger on metaphorically charged images, in much the same manner as the classic wuxia director King Hu. He also gives us the characters’ expectations during the fight – we’ll see a successful attack, followed by a cut back to the moments before the encounter, then we see what really happens. This device can be confusing, but it also aptly describes the martial masters’ difficulty in dealing with an opponent who doesn’t follow the rules. And it allows a measure of redemption for Qiu Dongyue. After stepping into a trap set by one of the soldiers (played by Song Yang – he is not given a name in the film, only described as “General Qi’s last bodyguard”), Qiu stews for a while and then rallies his spirits by setting up a clever ambush involving his wife and her lover. We see the planned execution, then the reality, where Qiu intervenes to produce a different outcome.
So you can say THE SWORD IDENTITY is about the clash of combat philosophies in the China of four hundred years ago, but that discourse is still relevant to martial artists today. For the aging master Qiu Dongyue, a “true martial artist” is one who “just want(s) to do some good.” For Master Qie, martial skills are a tool to be leveraged into status and power. And for the veteran soldiers, combat technique is about winning at all costs. The irony is that once they establish the school to codify and transmit General Qi’s swordplay through succeeding generations, it will eventually become as hollow and rigid as the other schools. While THE SWORD IDENTITY may disappoint those looking for nonstop action, it’s a must for fans of the deeper levels of Chinese swordplay. And, of course, for fans of Yu Chenghui.
Song Yang • Yu Chenghui. Xu Haofeng