Donnie Yen Wuxia Sakra Is a Convoluted, Momentarily Thrilling Epic

Movies Reviews Donnie Yen
Donnie Yen Wuxia Sakra Is a Convoluted, Momentarily Thrilling Epic

It’s been 25 years since Donnie Yen was the sole credited director of a film. In the time since 1998’s Shanghai Affairs, he solidified his screen legacy as Ip Man, crossed over to Hollywood in franchises like Star Wars and John Wick, and established his particular age-defying brand of on-screen combat in dozens of action movies. Turning 60 this year, Yen directs himself in Sakra, an adaptation of Jin Yong’s beloved wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils that picks its battles by following just one of its three main characters. Even then, it took six credited screenwriters to turn the persecution and vindication of Qiao Feng into a convoluted, conflicted epic that owes its momentary thrills to Yen’s relentless physicality.

While there’s an unintentional absurdity in watching the seasoned performer go through a plodding coming-of-age narrative—Qiao Feng must discover his true heritage and restore his good name after being framed for multiple murders—and fall in love with a woman half his age, it’s tempered by an equally undeniable power in watching Yen’s lightning-quick movements leave his co-stars in the dust. Like Yen’s cocky, blazing-white grin shining out from behind Qiao Feng’s dirty rags, unkempt locks and salt-and-pepper scruff, his skills cannot be masked by anything as insignificant as age. If this action grandpa wants us to believe that he’s mourning his murdered parents and has multiple 30-year-olds falling at his feet, it only takes one fight scene to sweep away our doubts.

And when those fight scenes come, Yen takes control of Sakra’s tempo like The Who’s Pinball Wizard. When Qiao Feng bounces around the frame, zipping from floor to ceiling and into hordes of baddies, the camera and editing excitedly follows his trajectory like a savant tracking his ball, ricocheting off the bumpers. Sakra’s best scene is its most impressively busy: Qiao Feng singlehandedly confronts hundreds of old Beggars’ Gang allies, dissolving their relationship with a toast so that he may more politely pulverize them.

Sakra’s loving embrace of wuxia maximalism is a delicious counterbalance to Yen’s recent foray into the hyper-real Wickian ballet, which reaches the sublimely fantastic from the other direction. Yen isn’t just popping the splits, or backflipping mid-flight, or whipping his hand through the air to catch a dozen arrows. He’s shooting force waves out of his hands, his moves as clearly named as any anime hero’s signature ability. The result is an outrageous amount of overkill. Being skewered isn’t enough, you must be pincushioned. A punch to the gut is for wimps, you must be literally driven into the wall by the force of a right hook. You don’t simply fall to your death with no collateral damage, you crash down through a building taking most of the architecture with you. Sakra’s aesthetic thoroughly commits to this excess: Where each kick or punch would usually have a high-pitched impact (those whooshing “psh, psh, psh” exchanges between flying fists and blocking forearms), each of Qiao Feng’s blows sounds like an Avenger landing on asphalt.

Sakra deploys so many effective tricks (endless wire stunts enhance its meticulous choreography) that some of the more glaring digital additions of camera-approaching weaponry, blood and rubble make the tightrope act between over-the-top imagery and tangible action teeter on the wire. Any wobble at all is cause for concern, because your patience and your stomach are already being tested by the connective tissue of this romantic adventure. 

The relentlessly noble Qiao Feng, friend to all, including those who are attacking him, framing him or otherwise antagonizing him, sees Yen deliver a familiar performance as an enlightened block of moralizing wood. This self-righteous character and Yen’s pro-China politics make Sakra’s own themes all the messier. It’s glancingly critical of Han nationalism (Qiao Feng is persecuted in part for being Khitan) and its story is filled with hypocritical monks and ambitious politicians, but there’s a stark and conservative moral rigidity to its bloody Buddhist tale—as are so many stories about a principled martyr who, through no fault of his own, simply needs to find the right ass to beat. And this one barely makes sense as it is.

As hypnotic as it is watching Yen fight, Sakra’s two hours continually splash the cold water of plot on your face to snap you out of your trance. Whether it’s the tired love story between Qiao Feng and Azhu (Chen Yuqi, wearing a series of Mission: Impossible masks), the thieving henchman whose life he saves, or the endless search for the real mastermind behind Qiao Feng’s set-up, the drama drags through whatever liminal space our characters inhabit on the way to the next fight. Sakra mires this oddly structured storytelling, which predominantly takes place outside of these action setpieces, in darkness, with talky scenes that are often underlit or given a tinted color-correction to exaggerate its period setting. It all comes to a head in a particularly modern fashion: After the credits start to roll. A confounding mid-credits stinger upends the film’s proceedings with promises of future movies, but Sakra more than gives us our fill of whatever Yen has to offer the wuxia world.

Yen’s return to the director’s chair finds a filmmaker confident in every facet of his action prowess and deeply set in his dramatic ways. Sakra never shies away from both sides of the performer: His fights burn so much adrenaline that you’re not surprised that he appears nearly expressionless during the rest of the film. His character’s simplicity is both of a piece with the genre and completely in the wheelhouse of a multihyphenate who’s far more concerned with the coherent sequencing of combat moves than the linear progression of a twisty narrative. But, by that same genre’s design, the film’s not lean enough for Yen’s strengths to fully shine. If Sakra wanted to enter into the wuxia canon, its lucid, lovely excess shouldn’t have stopped with its ceasefires.

Director: Donnie Yen
Writer: Sheng Lingzhi, Zhu Wei, He Ben, Chen Li, Shen Lejing, Xu Yifan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Chen Yuqi, Cya Liu, Wai Ying Hung, Wu Yue, Cheung Siu Fai, Wong Kwan Hing, Du Yuming
Release Date: April 14, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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