Martial arts movies have been a staple globally since the ’70s, especially in the United States. But there’s a specific kind of movie that’s been captivating audiences from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan ever since the release of films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen has been one of the many familiar faces in these genres, as he became well-known for starring in the series Ip Man. Now, in 2023, he has returned to the wuxia genre with a new epic: Sakra. Not only does Yen star in the movie, but he was the director and producer.
Typically based on novels within the same genre, wuxia movies are a treat to watch on the big screen. The origins of this movie lie in a novel, too, from one of the biggest wuxia writers of his generation: Jin Yong. Originally released in China during the 2023 Lunar New Year and the West later, Sakra stars Yen, Chen Yuqi, and Cya Liu in the main roles, although the focus is typically on Yen’s character: Qiao Feng.
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In Hong Kong, this story has been adapted many different times, but Sakra hopes to breathe life into a beloved novel and author’s work. Over two hours, Yen’s Qiao Feng is set to not only get into a plethora of fistfights and find a romantic interest, but he’s also going on an internal spiritual journey throughout everything happening in the background.
A Story of Redemption and Soul Searching
Set in a distant past, true to the wuxia genre, Sakra stems from a tragedy. The main character is Qiao Feng, who, as a child, was left an orphan due to violence. He was born into a tribe called the Khitan, who historically were a group of nomadic people inhabiting Northern China. However, Qiao Feng is adopted by a couple living with the Song Dynasty and Empire, which leads to problems as he grows older. As a mature adult, he finds himself in a sticky situation after becoming the chief of the Beggars’ Gang, a martial arts organization well-known in the wuxia genre, as it appears in many different movies in different ways.
One day Qiao Feng is accused by his fellow members of the murder of one of their deputy chiefs. Suspicion is immediately cast on him simply because he is an outsider. As someone who wasn’t born in the Song Dynasty and by the enemies of their nation, the Liao Empire led by the Khitan, this puts Qiao Feng in a precarious situation from the beginning. When he returns to his adoptive parent’s home, he is devastated to find them lying in pools of their blood. Found by other members of the Beggars’ Gang, he is forced to flee with a new reputation of being a traitor and being low enough to kill the people who gave him everything.
Along the way, he becomes allies with Azhu, a female servant who was sent to steal from the Beggars’ Gang and take away their secrets. When Azhu is injured in the process, Qiao Feng shows mercy towards her and is willing to sacrifice himself for her to get the medical attention she desperately needs. However, the two are separated in the process, forcing Qiao Feng to embark on a new journey not only to find himself but also to save the day and avenge his parents and past in the best way possible.
Sakra directly correlates with the wuxia serial Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, which was first found itself published in 1963 in a Hong Kong newspaper. In the original narrative, three different protagonists’ stories are split across many different chapters and editions, and Qiao Feng is one of the main characters of the second story. Some might sigh at the movie adaptations of novels and say they’re not as good as the novel, but when it comes to the plot, Sakra stays largely true to the original story written by author Jin Yong.
Elements of Classic Wuxia
Throughout Sakra, there are very clear elements of the foundations of most epic journeys in literature and film: the Hero’s Journey. From the very beginning, the character of Qiao Feng is established as an outsider, someone unlike the others within the society he was forcibly brought into. When the time comes and something peculiar happens, those who happily lived with him and accepted Qiao Feng as their leader are quick to point their fingers and blame him for their newfound misfortune. But when he could hit rock bottom upon being exiled from the tribe, he instead finds a new anchor in the character of Azhu.
In some ways, this works well within the genre and constraints the film is working within. Qiao Feng’s motivation and intent are extremely murky early on in the movie, making his prospects as a character uncertain as to where exactly the plot is going. Within the tropes of wuxia, martial arts are typically utilized for the hero to go on a justifiable journey, which typically is against someone or something highly corrupt. Jin Yong, the author of the text the film is based on, was known as one of the biggest wuxia writers of his generation, making him one of the biggest sources of inspiration for those looking to break into the genre.
There’s one big problem though when it comes to Sakra: while we go on this epic journey with Qiao Feng and seek out redemption for everything that happened to him, there are no emotional stakes for the viewer to root for him during the process. The action scenes where he takes on a ton of men twice his size in battle are entertaining, but by the end, there comes the classic element of storytelling that always leads to this question: “So what?” One might find themselves wondering what exactly they should be taking away from this movie, especially since Qiao Feng is not only distant from those he faces on the screen but also from the audience.
By its end, Sakra seems to be going through the motions of what’s expected of it, following the script paved from the source material. His relationship with Azhu also comes across as forced and necessary for the plot to proceed, because without something happening to her, he might be wandering across the plains of China on his horse forever. Without the action, Sakra would simply become repetitive and mindless, asking for too much investment from its viewers to keep it going.
A Film for Dedicated Fans
There are plenty of martial arts scenes in Sakra to keep the action elements woven throughout the plot, but for those unfamiliar with the genre, the movie might seem disjointed. Suddenly the action scenes involve the manipulation of elements, especially fire and water, and there’s no explanation for why this is occurring. However, it’s how seamlessly Sakra blends in these elements without explanation that makes the film work inside the genre. All the indicative characteristics of wuxia can be spotted almost immediately: the hero guided by his sense of morals and justice, the path of becoming an exile, those existing outside the mainstream and overarching forces of power.
Sakra may not be for everyone; only those who are dedicated fans of the wuxia genre might be able to get the full scope of the film’s nuanced scenes and references. Where the movie falls short the most is within its philosophical ramblings and dialogues–it’s simply trying too hard at times to make certain points. As a viewer, we can easily understand the themes and untangle the inner turmoil characters might be going through and how one is going to come out of a tough situation, but instead, it’s spoon-fed to the audience.
With that comes an excess of scenes and dialogue, making the film longer than it needs to be. Donnie Yen shines as the protagonist regardless, taking in the action and drama with stride and delivering a solid performance that adds to his martial arts and wuxia filmography. With its grand sets, large fights where groups of people take on Qiao Feng by himself, and elaborate costume design, Sakra may limp towards the finishing line by the end, but it stays largely true to wuxia and its specific conventions. It might not buy new fans towards these kinds of movies, but the dedicated fans may be pleased with Sakra.
Sakra will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 13, 2023.
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