It’s been nearly 20 years since Donnie Yen last directed a film. If you’re one of the newly converted Yen fans after watching John Wick: Chapter 4, you’ll likely be surprised to learn that Yen directed any films at all. His first dates back to 1997’s Legend of the Wolf and um… well, let’s just say that Yen is at his best when he’s in front of a camera.
So it was with some trepidation that I took an interest in Sakra, Yen’s return to directing in nearly two decades. Based on a contemporary wuxia novel titled Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by author Jin Yong, Yen described the intent of his adaptation as being a combination of Shakespeare and Marvel. As gag-inducing as that comparison might be, you start to see the modern Hollywood influence at almost every turn.
That’s to say, Sakra is a well-produced film that is more concerned with setting up future events than being a coherent and complete story in its own right.
Director: Donnie Yen
Release Date: January 16, 2023 (Malaysia, Singapore), January 19, 2023 (Hong Kong, Macau), April 14, 2023 (US)
Sakra doesn’t attempt to adapt the entire of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, instead focusing on one central character and telling his tale from the novel. At some point during the Song Dynasty, a Khitan-born child named Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen) loses his parents and is found by a couple from the Song Empire. He lives a happy life and eventually learns Shaolin martial arts before joining the powerful Beggars’ Gang when becoming an adult. After a ludicrously overproduced fight sequence that just cannot limit the usage of CGI, Qiao is accused of murdering Ma Dayuan by his wife, Kang Min (Grace Wong). At the same time, his Khitan heritage is brought up, resulting in him being banished from the Beggars’ Gang and set on a quest to discover the truth.
It’s a lot to take in for the first 20 minutes of the film, which isn’t helped by the dialogue being almost entirely comprised of exposition. One thing American audiences probably won’t know is that wuxia novels are often written in volumes and can sometimes have six or seven books filling out their narrative. With Sakra being only two hours and 10 minutes long, the film is simply too truncated to do justice to Jin Yong’s original story. While Chinese and Hong Kong audiences are familiar with the particular story being told here, Sakra still doesn’t have the proper length to really expand on character arcs or give each of its principal cast enough time to shine.
Getting back to the plot, Qiao is already having a bad day, so he returns home to ask his parents the truth of these claims of him being Khitan born. In a twist of fate that seems almost comical, his parents are lying dead on the ground and some villagers assume Qiao murdered them. Having to flee from another accusation, Qiao heads to Shaolin to speak with his master and, wouldn’t you know it, his old teacher dies right as he enters the room. So, we have three accusations in nearly as many scenes, but Qiao notices another person in the room. He catches up to them and it turns out this person, a woman named Azhu (Chen Yuqi), was sent by the Morong Gang to steal Shaolin’s Yijin Jing scroll.
If I continue to recap the plot, this review will wind up being as bloated as Sakra, so we’ll stop there. On a technical level, Sakra isn’t that bad of a film. While the CGI looks horrendous, the cinematography is rather fetching. You can tell there is a ton of CG being used to fill out the backgrounds, but the almost PS3-level quality of the vistas is kind of charming in a lo-fi way. This is a film punching way above its weight class, which is estimated to have a budget of around ¥150 million (or roughly $21.8 million USD). I can’t fault the movie for not being cutting-edge.
Where I can fault things is in how lousy the acting and writing is. Donnie Yen is a fairly accomplished actor both in terms of his physicality and dramatic chops. While his modern persona is dominated by his turn as Ip Man, he was putting in good work back in the Hong Kong glory days of the 80s and 90s. He’s always had a good stage presence, which makes it so surprising that he never emotes in this film. Maybe it’s down to the original story being melodramatic, but even the scenes where Yen is supposed to be crying come off as forced.
His co-star, Chen Yuqi, is certainly beautiful, but she has basically zero chemistry with Yen. The majority of the film focuses on the romance that their two characters form, so it’s a major blow to the proceedings to have its cast feel like they are acting in almost separate rooms. Nothing flows well, the intimacy is non-existent, and both rarely shift their tone of voice beyond a general monotone.
I did find it interesting that Sakra is primarily in Cantonese, which is a rarity nowadays. Louis Koo’s Warriors of Future was one of the first major Hong Kong productions in a long time and Sakra joins it as being a primarily Hong Kong-funded movie. Wikipedia even lists Shaw Brothers as one of the production companies, though I’m pretty sure that is more of an honorary mention. Influential HK director Wong Jing did co-produce the film alongside Yen, though, so there is a lot of Cantonese DNA here.
Sadly, that influence from Hong Kong isn’t really felt anywhere. As I stated at the top of this review, Sakra is far more interested in setting up future events than it is in telling a coherent story. When the inciting incident centers around Qiao Feng having potentially murdered Ma Dayuan, it’s ridiculous that the thread gets dropped until roughly 95 minutes into the movie. This is because Sakra has to introduce a ton of characters that mean nothing for this current story, but could become potential angles for a sequel.
While I won’t reveal the final “twist,” if you even want to call it one, Sakra isn’t content with throwing ridiculous revelations in the final act. It even throws them into the credits with some asinine sequel baiting that practically undermines the entire story. Qiao Feng’s story does get resolved, sure, but everyone else you met is a new angle that can lead to spin-offs, sequels, TV series, blah blah.
I can’t believe I’ve gone 1,000 words without even talking about the action, but Sakra is mostly just competent in that regard. The first scene plays out like some Dragon Ball nonsense, but wuxia stories often have supernatural elements. The only reason this one doesn’t work is that the CGI looks bad. The rest of the fight scenes are mostly fine, though have an overreliance on slow-mo. Yen has done much better work in this regard, but he still gets to showcase his physicality. I’m not thrilled about the quick cuts during chase scenes, but the geography of each battlefield isn’t ever obscured.
I’m really struggling to recall any moments that truly stick out. The most dramatic action scene in the movie comes right before the mid-point and it’s undercut by lousy direction. Qiao Feng faces off against a massive group and the lackluster CG mixed with wooden acting robs the moment of any emotion it is supposed to have. It’s also hilarious how these warriors intent on killing Qiao are standing over his injured body and hitting him with the force of a toddler.
Sakra isn’t a complete disaster, though. While the tone fluctuates from moment to moment and the soundtrack never quite settles on a style it wants, the movie has some good elements. Despite Yen’s disappointing acting here, the relationship between Qiao and Azhu is beautifully tragic. I also like the angle of Qiao looking inward to discover if he truly is a good person. These are things that could have led Sakra to be a solid wuxia movie if they were handled better.
The production quality is there (mostly) and the ideas are good, but nothing really comes together in the end. That’s a real shame as I do understand Yen’s statement of wuxia being Marvel-like. There are so many characters created throughout the years that could be gathered together in an interconnected universe that you wonder why China hasn’t already attempted this. It just sucks that Yen’s big push has wound up being disappointing.
Sakra won’t go down as Yen’s worst film and as far as his directorial efforts are concerned, this is probably middle-of-the-road for him. Maybe if the film does well enough, the aggravating sequel-baiting ending can result in a film that better realizes its themes. Only time will tell.