Based on a 1960s serialized wuxi novel “Demi-Gods and Demi-Devils” written by Jin Yong (查良鏞; 6 February 1924 – 30 October 2018), “Sakra” (天龍八部之喬峯傳) is a movie by committee. Donnie Yen is credited as director with Kan Ka-Wai and Cheng War-man are co-directors. Six writers (Sheng Lingzhi, Zhu Wei, He Ben, Chen Li, Shen Lejing and Xu Yifan) worked on the screenplay based on Louis Cha’s novel that worked better as a limited series.
From the beginning, the music makes it clear with is a Chinese western. You’ll hear strains of Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), the man who scored Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy. Unfortunately, “Sakra” isn’t as fast and tightly wound as the 2008 South Korean “kimchee western” set in Manchuria during World War II, “The Good, the Bad and the Weird.” Chan Chi-ying’s cinematography seems atmospheric at first as we meet Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen), who was raised by a couple from the Song Empire. Qiao Feng becomes a powerful chief in the Beggars’ Sect, but is framed for murder of the gang’s deputy chief who had a letter containing details about Qiao Feng’s background. He’s later blamed for the murder of his adoptive parents as well as for the Shaolin monk who trained him in martial arts, Xuanku. As he escapes from the sect, he takes with him a Morong servant Azhu (Chen Yuqi).
Every hero has a quest and Qiao Feng’s quest is to find out about more about his true parentage and then to seek vengeance on the people who ambushed his real parents 30 years ago at the Yanmen Pass. The cinematography stops looking stylish as the two-hour and ten-minute film trudges on and there’s a sameness to the battle scenes. The action scenes aren’t inherently bad, but the tempo and the story structure levels out and is numbing rather than emotionally stirring. There’s nothing to draw the viewer into the fight scenes, no visual that sticks out nor anything that provides an emotional connection like the 222 steps in “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Since I haven’t read the source material, I’m guessing the compressing of this saga and the focus on action has forced the developing romance between Qiao Feng and Azhu to be too severely truncated.
Both my husband and I were confused at the end, but I suppose that would be explained in the sequel because this is what the last scenes set up. Or it could be because neither one of us have read the novel. Another point of confusion is that Donnie Yen also plays Xiao Yuanshan, Qiao Feng’s biological father. If you’re a fan of this wuxi novel, the film might make more sense.
Although the film is a few minutes shorter than “John Wick: Chapter 4,” it feels tediously long. While Donnie Yen can be a commanding presence with the right director, but here he fails himself. “Sakra” is not exactly worth seeing as a film. It’s like one of those old movies that is now best remembered for the dance sequences you can see on YouTube or TikTok. “Sakra” is best as something you can stream or you can just wait until someone puts the best action sequences on YouTube.
“Sakra” was released in January of this year in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Taiwan. “Sakra” is currently playing at selected theaters.