The genre is often as ritualistic as the classical musical, with stories constructed around fight scenes which are choreographed like elaborate dance numbers. The movies most familiar to western viewers – Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou's series of historical epics beginning with Hero (2002) – are like the big MGM musicals of the '50s, opulently designed, emotionally operatic, driven by visual spectacle. The Sword Identity is more like a chamber piece, a film built on stillness rather than flamboyant action. Liang's fighting style is “shadow and sound”, bringing out the essence of the martial arts genre which is more internal than external, rooted in a deep philosophical awareness of the individual's relationship with the world around him.
Xu gives us the inner thoughts of the characters as they analyze the situations they find themselves in, and then presents the resulting action in very quick, at times confusing, flashes. Rather than lingering on the physical aspects of martial arts, he's concerned with what comes before and after these clashes. This internalization reaches its climax in the sequence in which the now-injured Qiu seems to orchestrate the violent ending of the relationship between his wife and her lover, only for the action to back up immediately and repeat with a different outcome – expressing an inner change in Qiu who has finally come to terms with the situation.
From the point of view of the usual pleasures offered by the genre, the exhilaration of those choreographed fight scenes, The Sword Identity can seem frustrating. The dominant tone is one of stillness, of waiting, and the action scenes are too brief and abstract to provide any full release of the underlying tension. The resolution of the conflict turns out not to be about weaponry and physical dominance, but rather about the nature of character. To this end Xu gets thoughtful and engaging performances from his cast.
Lionsgate's no-frills, single-layer DVD of The Sword Identity offers a crisp visual presentation which at times looks too obviously shot on video, with the rather flat image occasionally looking like a television drama. But given the film's other strengths, this is a minor quibble.