Movie Review: Sakra (天龍八部之喬峯傳)

Action star Donnie Yen/甄子丹 (the IP MAN films) has clearly kept himself busy during the pandemic. COME BACK HOME, which is a recruitment ad for one of China’s disciplined services masquerading as a family-centric drama, saw Yen as a father in a desperate search to find his son who is lost in the country’s snowy northeast. He then went on to shoot JOHN WICK 4, which is due to come to the cinemas in late March. Presumably while all that was going on, he was also working on his big wuxia action film, SAKRA, which he not only stars in, he also produced and directed it.

Adapted from the hugely successful 1960s novel “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (天龍八部) by Louis Cha Leung-yung aka Jin Yong/金庸, SAKRA tells the story of Qiao Feng (Yen), a foundling in the Song dynasty who grows up to become chief of the Beggars’ Gang, a group of horseback-riding, wine-drinking martial artists who uphold justice and defend Han Chinese society from foreign invaders. Qiao Feng is loved by all for his leadership qualities and exceptional martial arts skills but all that gets tossed out the window when he gets falsely accused of murdering his adoptive parents and some fellow martial artists. Even worse, he is also accused of being a member of the Khitan, a clan from northeast Asia who are the archnemesis of the Han. Forced out of his wulin, he begins to search for his roots while his former friends try to kill him. Along the way, he meets the beautiful Ah Zhu (Chen Yuqi/陳鈺琪), who is also looking for her family.

That’s just the first hour of the film. There’s still another 70 minutes that the audience has to endure until the closing credits roll. SAKRA is undoubtedly an ambitious work but it’s all terribly muddled with dozens of characters being introduced in rapid succession. Even Yen must have realised that he was dealing with a behemoth but, rather than splitting the story into two parts, he zips through the film’s third act leaving pivotal characters like Ruan Xingzhu (Kara Wai Ying-hung/惠英紅, MRS K), Duan Zhengchun (Eddie Cheung Siu-fai/張兆輝, G STORM) and Ah Zi (Cya Liu Ya-se/劉雅瑟, I’M LIVIN’ IT) just a few minutes of screen time each. Audiences not familiar with the source material may find themselves scratching their heads trying to work out where it’s all heading. Adding to the disappointment is that someone appears to have neglected to do the colour correction in post-production. The film’s colour palette is notably washed out and the dim lighting during the fight scenes makes it difficult to appreciate the intricate choreography. Yen also seems to have forgotten that movie-making rule of saving your hero’s best work for the finale. Here, Qiao Feng puts his fancy wushu powers on display in battle after battle so that by the time the final showdown takes place, there’s nothing left for the audiences to be wowed over.

Yen likes to inject some social commentary into his films and he does so here too. His IP MAN films deal with anti-Asian racism and, in SAKRA, Qiao Feng becomes an outcast through no fault of his own. It’s 12th century cancel culture. Unfortunately, Yen seems to have overlooked that not-so modern issue that has reared its ugly head in recent years: Xenophobia. Even if Qiao Feng is a Khitan, hasn’t he proved his worth to the Han? Clearly, not. And do the Han really want to go up against someone who is as powerful as Qiao Feng? Clearly, they do. If only the Han could have learned a lesson or two from Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, who wouldn’t let the children of Israel go. That, of course, would result in a very different story.

SAKRA opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (January 19th) and in other markets in the region a few days later. In China, it is going straight to the Internet, which may be a reflection of what the authorities there think of the film. That decision, however, may end up working in Yen’s favour as Covid may or may not be raging in China now depending on whom you believe. For the film, Yen gets full marks for effort but he barely gets a pass for execution. SAKRA is meh.

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