Fantasia Fest 3-View: ‘The Sword Identity,’ ‘The Haunting of Julia,’ ‘Reign of Assassins’

By  · Published on August 31st, 2012

Montreal’s Fantasia Fest has one of the most gargantuan lineups of genre titles of any film festival in the world. Its diverse roster of foreign and domestic crowd-pleasers is an absolute marvel, and we’ve been covering it with gusto.

Today, we bring you a selection of these films in a capsule format we like to call the 3-View. This time around we’ve got two period martial arts films and a classic, if maybe a touch underseen, 70s ghost story starring Mia Farrow.

Just think of it as a Mia Farrow sandwich. Oh, and could someone please get Mia Farrow a sandwich?

The Sword Identity (2011)

Dir: Haofeng Xu

During the Ming Dynasty, two strangers bearing exceedingly large swords wander into a village with the hope of teaching their particular brand of swordsmanship. The welcome they receive from the village leaders and military is less than hospitable. Mistaken for Japanese pirates, the two swordsmen must prove themselves as far more than teachers. What follows is an unorthodox standoff, an unexpected romance, and a pile of foolish guards.

The sparse summation of The Sword Identity is less a ploy to protect its secrets and more a testament to its confounding plot. It’s not as if the audience is never clued in as to who newly introduced characters are or that the overall aesthetic is some withholding, dreamlike stupor. It’s just that the individual pieces of The Sword Identity’s complex story never seem to find comfortable confluence within the narrative. That’s not to say all stories must be told as straightforward as possible, but coupled with some poor editing choices, it really deflates the pace and lessens the impact of the more emotional beats. The movie is a lead balloon in these moments.

The other issue plaguing The Sword Identity is its jarring changes in tone. It begins with quiet severity, a violent callback to Kurosawa’s golden age. It creates a favorable expectation for the events to come. But then, a sharp left; a jerking turn so sudden it almost derails the entire film. Suddenly it’s a slapstick comedy. Then, once the audience is settled into that stylistic whim, a heavy, classic Chinese drama centering on the aging master from the mountains. And then back to comedy. It feels like the title should have been The Sword Identity Crisis.

The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Dir: Richard Loncraine

Julia Lofting loses her daughter in one of the most unexpected and horrifically worst-case-scenario fashions that one could dare to contemplate. Not to spoil the details, but suffice to say the manner by which her daughter dies leaves Julia with a tremendous side helping of guilt to accompany her sorrow entree. Feeling desperate to escape her grief, and the daily reminders of that day, Julia moves into her own house, which greatly troubles her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Almost as soon as the “for sale” sign comes down and the boxes come in, supernatural occurrences beset Julia’s new home. These occurrences lead her to hateful secrets buried deep in the house’s sordid past.

Everyone loves a good ghost story. Moreso than any other paranormal threat, ghosts provide the best possible opportunity for reasonable doubt among even the most cynical horrorphile. When the spiritual plane comes into play, we are less resolved that the things we see on screen are entirely fantastical, even if only subconsciously. It is this uncertainty, that lingering doubt in the back of our collective consciousness that feeds the off-putting atmosphere of The Haunting of Julia. The hint of something in the shadows, the unsettling notion that something spectral could very well be after Julia, especially in light of the home’s dark history, allows the film to maintain a constant and palpable tension. It conjures the same delicious foreboding as would The Changeling three years later; no small compliment to either film. In fact, like The Changeling, The Haunting of Julia also features a rather memorable seance.

Mia Farrow is her trademark teary, unstable waif, but her character’s specific set of circumstances calls for precisely her meek style of performance. Of particular note here is her relationship with Tom Conti. Conti is effortlessly amiable, and the closer these two become, the more dangerous things seem to become for both of them. A costarring credit also can, and should be granted to Colin Towns’ marvelous score. A happy marriage of orchestral movements and Casio synth accents, the score flirts with a dream state but never allows us the luxury of retreating into it and away from the fright. The Haunting of Julia is gripping and subtly unnerving. The individual facets of its tangled mystery make for a series of surprises all the way to the film’s shocking conclusion.

Reign of Assassins (2010)

Dir: Chao-Bin Su

The Dark Stone gang boasts some of the greatest assassins in the world among its membership. They are in pursuit of the halved remains of a revered monk; remains said to grant its possessor unparallelled martial arts abilities. One night, they raid the home of the prime minister, who is said to be harboring one half of the remains. During the raid, the minister and his family are killed and The Dark Stone gang’s most lethal member, Drizzle, has pulled a fast one on her fellow assassins and made off with the first half of the remains. She meets a monk who convinces her to abandon her criminal life, changes her appearance, and hides in a nearby rural village. As one would expect, she is unable to hide from her sinful past forever.

Reign of Assassins is a classic Wuxia film, and it isn’t. It centers on a martial arts hero who must right certain wrongs, but a hero with a more accessible set of motivations and a more defined character arc than often found in period martial arts epics. The themes are grand, but never overly lavish or detrimentally poetic. The romance in the film for example is not flowery, but reservedly sincere. Reign of Assassins feels distinctly more modern, more blockbuster polished with its cinematic tactics and therefore proves lighter and snappier than something like, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Michelle Yeoh’s absence from this genre, Crouching Tiger being her last foray into martial arts, is made doubly unfortunate by her graceful, yet powerful performance here.

Typical of films in this vein, Reign of Assassins features plenty of high-flying acrobatics. However, what keeps these moments from seeming stylistically out-of-hand is that the acrobatics enhance natural athletic talents, but never go so far as to be superhuman. It grounds the fight sequences in a way that makes the impact of each punch more tangible. The story may seem traditional in many respects, but it is not without its surprises, some of which play to very specific tropes from John Woo’s American action films. Woo actually served as producer on Reign of Assassins, and as a sort of an assistant director, so the connection is not hard to understand. This connection, coupled with a few truly shocking story points, allows Reign of Assassins to briefly venture into more exploitative territory that oddly serves to heighten its overall quality. Each of the few WTF moments is subsumed by a greater application of cinematography, performance, and storytelling.

The end result is as lovely as it is thunderously entertaining.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.