Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen Ji-dan and his martial arts crew put their expertise in hard-hitting action to great use in this respectable adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a beloved 1960s wuxia novel by literary giant Louis Cha Leung-yung, also known as Jin Yong.
Yen, who turns 60 this year, said at the screening this writer attended that he is at a stage of his career where he is now treating every action movie as if it is his last.
His passion for this ambitious undertaking is obvious. Not only is Yen the project’s leading star and producer – alongside Wong Jing, a frequent collaborator since 2017’s Chasing the Dragon – but Sakra also marks the first directing credit that he officially takes in nearly two decades. Big Brother’s Kam Ka-wai lends a hand as a co-director.
Yen plays Qiao Feng, the loyal and righteous leader of the Beggars’ Gang, a martial arts organisation in the Han Chinese-dominated Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) in China. The character is one of the most memorable tragic heroes in all of Cha’s oeuvre.
Qiao, taken in as an abandoned baby and raised by a Han Chinese couple, grows up to become an extremely powerful martial artist who has repeatedly led his sect to victory in battles to defend their homeland against the foreign invaders from the north.
Early in Sakra, Qiao’s fate as a misunderstood hero is sealed when his identity as a descendant of Khitan nomads – the very people he has spent his life fighting – a fact he is oblivious to, is revealed. Then he is framed for the murders of the second-in-command of the Beggars’ Gang, his own adoptive parents and his teacher in the Shaolin Temple.
The film clocks in at 130 minutes and its sprawling narrative follows Qiao as he leaves everyone behind to investigate the truth about his birth parents, as well as the murders pinned on him, only to inadvertently fall for Zhu (Chen Yuqi), a servant girl – and, handily, a master face-swapper – from the villainous Murong clan.
One of the book’s most famous scenes, in which Qiao walks right into a council meeting held by his former allies and long-time enemies, who are all swearing to kill him, is brought to particularly bloody life.
But, like many previous adaptations that have tried to distil the epic scope of Cha’s novels into a neatly packaged movie, Sakra comes up short when it tries to meaningfully weave in the great number of characters from the original story.
The hugely influential role of Qiao’s father (also played by Yen in brief scenes) is most confusingly presented, and several characters portrayed by supposedly principal cast members – such as Kara Wai Ying-hung and Cya Liu Ya-se as Zhu’s birth mother and sister – are reduced to mere afterthoughts in the unevenly paced film.
Sakra may prove a far more satisfying experience to viewers already familiar with Cha’s Buddhist-inspired story – but even for the uninitiated, Yen’s valiant attempt at wuxia filmmaking should still offer a diverting enough experience at the cinema.