Sometime during the Ming Dynasty, two wandering soldiers arrive in the southern city of Guancheng. Armed with unusually long swords, they fight their way past the four martial arts schools which reign in the city. One of the pair is captured, while the other escapes and goes into hiding. He is Liang Henlu (Song Yang), a former bodyguard of the great General Qi who defeated the Japanese pirates who had plagued China's coasts.
Liang has arrived in the city hoping to establish a school to pass on Qi's fighting style. But in order to do that, he must defeat the established schools to prove his worth. The problem is, Qi's style is based on that long sword which was derived from the Japanese katana, and thus forbidden in China. The leader of the martial arts establishment starts a rumour that Liang is a Japanese pirate himself, and the city's forces – the four schools and the Coast Guard – set out to destroy him.
Liang proves a wily opponent. He recruits a dancing girl and gives her a quick lesson in fighting from a concealed position, from which she holds off the combined forces of the four schools while he sets out to defeat the Coast Guard and attack the schools from behind. He also recruits the Lady Qiu, the centre of a parallel narrative. When she was brought to Guancheng to be the wife of Qiu, the master of one of the schools, she came with a bodyguard who turned out to be her lover. Rather than punish her and the lover, Qiu exiled himself to the mountains. Now, hearing of the supposed Japanese pirate, he returns and the cat-and-mouse game with Liang becomes an opportunity to resolve his own personal story.
The Sword Identity (2011) is the directing debut of Chinese writer Xu Haofeng and in style and content represents a critique of the Chinese martial arts genre, wuxia pian. The hero, as here, is often an outsider driven by a sense of justice, who stands against a rigid establishment which has perhaps lost its own sense of chivalry. The trope of conflicting martial arts schools is also common in the genre, often to the exclusion of other social and political factors. In Xu's film this rigidity is represented by the opposition to Qi's innovative weapon and the unconventional tactics Liang brings to the fight.