With all the publicity surrounding his supporting role in John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023), many martial arts fans may not have realized that Donnie Yen has another film due on the horizon. Released at the start of the year in China, Wuxia epic Sakra is due for release Stateside soon from distributors Well Go USA.
Sakra is a major film for Yen, with him not only starring but stepping behind the camera as director for the first time since Protégé de la Rose Noire back in 2004. Yen has certainly surpassed himself, with his work on Sakra easily overshadows his previous work as a director, being equally on par with some of his more popular films he has made under other directors.
Adapted from Jin Yong’s famed Wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which has formed the basis of several television series and movies dating back to the late 70’s. Sakra is certainly one of the better adaptations of the material, covering the Qiao Feng arc of the novel.
Here Feng is portrayed by Donnie Yen, an Khitan born orphan who was adopted by a couple from the Song Empire. Not knowing of his true heritage, Feng grows up to become the leader of the righteous Beggars Gang. While he has lead the gang well, those behind the scenes would rather they be in charge and set him up for the murder of one of their own.
After Kang Min (Grace Wong) claims that Feng murdered her husband, the deputy Chief of the gang, Feng is then faced with proof that he is actually a Khitan who are hated by those from the Song. He is exiled from the gang but before leaving vows that he will find out who is truly responsible for this crime.
Feng is possibly the most unlucky character Yen has ever played, as not long after another tragedy befalls him then another which finally brings him together with servant girl Azhu (Chen Yuqi). During their initial meeting Azhu is injured and although Feng is initially able to help he realizes that in order to truly save her he must bring her to a famous doctor. Unfortunately that means that he will have to come into contact once again with his former gang mates who may not be as welcoming as they once were.
In addition to having to fight against his friends, Feng must still try and find out his true origins as well as who set him up for murder which will bring him up against his most powerful opponents yet.
Yen has surrounded himself with a plethora of talent to make sure Sakra is the best film it can be. With him also portraying the lead, he probably realized the difficulty in directing. With that he has brought on the expertise of Kam Ka-Wai to co-direct the film with him. Kam had previously directed Yen in the underrated Big Brother (2018), with the two of them seriously upping their game since that collaboration.
Sakra is the type of fantasy martial arts film that I love. With a semi tragic story, hyper emotional characters and otherworldly special powers, Sakra has everything I’m looking for with this genre. Those expecting a more artfully staged Wuxia ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) shouldn’t apply. This doesn’t reach for such lofty heights, with Yen knowing exactly who his audience is.
Yen has already spoken of how he has taken inspiration from multiple sources such as the MCU. I even picked up some whiffs of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) during the opening act when we are shown the woodland hideout of the Beggars Sect.
Acting wise, Yen doesn’t exactly stretch himself. Even so, he is perfect as the romantic hero, all smouldering looks and stoicism until it’s time to kick ass, which of course he does with aplomb.
He is more than supported by his co-stars who are all on point, giving the type of slightly over the top performances a film of this ilk requires. The cast is made up from a variety of up and comers and screen veterans. It was nice to see Yen reunite with Wu Yue after Ip Man 4 (2019), with them once again squaring off in a memorable fight scene. The only drawback is that his screen time is limited. I thought after the quality work that Yue had put in with such films as Paradox (2017) and The Brink (2017) that he would have been in larger roles by now, but even so, at least he is consistently working.
Ostensibly you could view Yue’s character Murong Fu as the film’s main villain but for a great deal of the film Feng has to deal with the duplicitous machinations of Grace Wong’s Kang Min and Du Yuming as Bai Shijing who certainly put our hero through the ringer. Both do well in their roles, especially Wong whose character you will be hoping gets their comeuppance before the film ends.
The relationship between Yen’s Qiao Feng and Chen Yuqi’s Azhu is surprisingly chaste. While Chen does well enough in her role, the one issue is that she and Yen don’t share much in the chemistry. Perhaps this is for the best, with there being 30 years between the two of them. The inclusion of a full blown romance may have caused some complaints.
I did appreciate appearances from screen greats like Kara Wai, Eddie Cheung and Ray Lui who all show up in small but notable roles. As well as them there’s also the likes of Tsui Siu-ming and Yuen Cheung-yan who typically work more behind the camera than in front of it.
It’s not just a quality cast that Yen has assembled however, with the production design being exquisite, with the breathtaking costumes and sets seriously betraying the film’s low budget, at least in terms of its Hollywood counterparts. Only some poor CGI lets the film’s production values down.
Then there’s the action, which to many is the most important aspect of a Donnie Yen vehicle. Once again Yen has employed the expertise of regular collaborator Kenji Tanigaki, who once again choreographs a number of awe inspiring fight scenes that are a mixture of various styles.
While we have the more fantastical wuxia style martial arts moves beloved of the genre, with characters seemingly floating on air and shooting energy bolts out of their hands, there are also the more MMA inspired moves beloved of Yen which are perfectly incorporated into the fight scenes. When it comes to the swordplay the film becomes surprisingly brutal. I didn’t expect the level of violence on display with many blood spray flying across the screen with the odd dismemberment thrown in for good measure.
The opening fight scene where Yen goes up against the aforementioned Tsui Siu-ming and his followers gives a taste of what to expect, with Tanigaki pulling out all the stops. Being slightly reminiscent of his excellent work on the Rurouni Kenshin live action series.
The most impressive action scene comes roughly at the mid way mark, where Yen has to take on countless opponents, some of which are his former comrades. It is an excellent display of action, showing Yen at his best. While the finale also impresses, this was the standout for me and the set piece that I find myself talking about the most.
As much as I enjoyed Sakra, I can’t overlook some issues the film has, even if these were ultimately minor and didn’t derail my enjoyment. At times the plot does feel somewhat overstuffed, with a lot of characters introduced during the films run time. There is a lot to get through in just over 2 hours, and because of this it sometimes feels rushed, with characters being shortchanged in order to focus on those who are more important to the plot.
Following the MCU’s example, there are a couple of mid credits teasers which certainly give opportunity for a sequel, and with Sakra only covering a part of Demi Gods and Semi Devils, there should be more than enough material to make this a possibility. Hopefully the film proves to be enough of a success to allow Yen to continue the story of Qiao Feng where he left off.
Plot: 3.5/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 4.5/5 Overall: 4/5