SAKRA is Donnie Yen’s 2023 passion project, which he stars in and co-directed (with Kam Ka-Wai, second assistant director of IP MAN 1 and 2). It’s a wuxia story based on a famous novel with the tough-sounding title Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong.

Yen stars as Qiao Feng, an orphan raised by a couple in the Song Empire. He grows up to become the leader of the powerful Beggar Gang, whose legendary badassness is introduced in one of those classic scenes where somebody is being an asshole in public and our guy is quietly listening for a while and then gets inolved (see also: Blue Eye Samurai). A monk (Tsui Siu-Ming, KUNG FU KILLER) comes to this restaurant dragging a cage he says contains an “unruly” person he’s going to sacrifice, and Qiao Feng is sitting at a table on the balcony of a whole different establishment across the way when he starts loudly talking shit without even looking at him. The monk is like “What the fuck – is that guy talking to me?

Qiao throws chopsticks to remove a tarp from the cage, leaps across the courtyard, does a flip and lands in a chair at the monk’s table, still chewing his food. They have one of those acting-calm-while-being-threatening conversations, until the monk’s thugs attack and Qiao Feng fights them off without initially getting up out of his chair.

This fight establishes the idea that Qiao Feng stands for fierce morality, including when that defies religious dogma. It also sets up the level of reality at play here: the monk (who warned him not to “play with fire”) can shoot flames from his hands, Qiao has a powerful energy blast move called “Eighteen Subduing Dragon Palms,” also people can glide, run up walls, kick almost any size of object through the air, easily smash through floors and walls like they’re flying Kool Aid Men – the good stuff. Also there’s a part where the monk asks if Qiao’s weapon is a “dog beating staff” and he says, “It’s used on jerks.”

Despite having a fun time beating that particular jerk, Qiao has a very bad day. A meeting of the Beggar Gang is called to accuse him of murder and of being a Khitan, the rivals of the Song Empire. He didn’t do the murder, but has no idea about the Khitan thing, knowing nothing about his biological parents. There’s some weird rule where the elders are gonna stab themselves with special daggers as punishment for his sins, but he very honorably stabs himself instead and rides off to investigate his origins.

That’s not the end of the bad day! He goes to ask his adoptive parents if the rumors are true, only to find they’ve just been stabbed to death, and two guys walk in on him and assume he did it. Next he sneaks into the Shaolin Temple to ask his old teacher about his origins, and that guy falls over dead, so suddenly he’s being falsely accused of four murders. In the process of escaping, a young monk is injured (and revealed to be a woman in disguise – long hair under bald cap and everything!) and Qiao blames himself, so he carries her off to safety.

I gotta say, I love this guy just for how nimble he is about leaping across rooftops. When you wake up in the morning, do you ever have trouble getting going? This guy doesn’t. His eyes pop open, like 2 seconds later he’s flying away like a fuckin rocket, and coming right back with stolen steam buns for breakfast. I’m sure he could get coffee or donuts or whatever you want. Great guy to have around.

The woman’s name is Azhu. She’s the servant of a rich family, also seeking her origins, and forced to steal a manuscript from the Shaolin Temple. Qiao believes only Physician Xue (Cheung-Yan Yuen, TAI CHI MASTER) can heal her injuries, but to find him he has to walk into a huge meeting where upwards of 100 warriors were just chanting “Kill Qiao Feng! Kill the traitor!”

“Qiao Feng, how dare you come to the You brothers’ Heroes’ Gathering Manor! What a coincidence. We were discussing how to root out scum like you.”

When Physician Xue looks at Azhu he says, “All healers ought to have healing hands and kind hearts. I won’t turn away anyone who seeks medical help… except for anyone brought by you!

This is only like halfway through the movie, but it has this incredible scene where he agrees to fight all of these “Heroes.” He says some of them used to be his brothers but it’s okay if they want to fight him to the death. So they all start toasting. They seem sad and nostalgic as they list all the times he saved their lives and what they admire about him and stuff. And the music gets more and more emotional, like they’re all gonna hug at the end of it, but Qiao says, “After drinking this wine, our relationship will end here. In the next life I hope we can still be good brothers.”

By the way, two notes about these toasts. One, the Song brothers can not be happy about how many of their bowls get smashed for this ritual. Two, it seems unfair that Qiao toasts over and over and chugs a big jug for the last one while everybody else just drinks one small bowl. He’s not complaining though, and drinks from another jug during the fight.

I love the melodrama, but I also like how Yen leavens it with a perfect joke. There’s this random bandit we saw on the road earlier bragging to his underlings how if he ever saw Qiao Feng he’d kick his ass because “in terms of kung fu, I’m a match for him.” Now his men are like “What are you waiting for? This is your chance!” so he’s forced to step out there to join the challenge. Qiao is like “Who the fuck are you?” and gives him the most devastating kick to the head, just slamming him face-first through a wooden cart and into the ground.

The beginning of the fight takes place on top of the huge Heroes’ Gathering table, as the Heroes attack him many at a time, and he completely destroys most of them with one or two sledge-hammer-like kicks. I love the shot where he smashes a guy through the table, and the camera follows him down to the under section and pans across as another guy and another guy and another guy crash through to the ground.

In this fight Qiao fucks up more motherfuckers than almost anybody has ever fucked up, knocking them into each other like bowling pins, slashing necks with a sword, doing a Shao Khan Shang Tsung fatality move on four elders at once, yanking their souls out and then pushing them through a window. He force pushes the blood out of a guy, leaps up and in mid-air snaps a spear over his knee so he can throw both halves and impale two guys before his feet touch the ground.

Even seeing all this, Azhu is worried they’re gonna get him. She’s right to be worried – Physician Xue stabs Qiao in his Qi Hui acupoint (you now how it is) so he can’t use his powers, including the Eighteen Subduing Dragons Palm. (Man, I’m gonna file a complaint against that doctor, I do not think he behaves ethically.) But Qiao keeps fighting in heroically silent slow motion until the ceiling collapses on all of them as a mysterious cloaked figure in the rafters zoinks him away on a rope. The mystery man brings him to a cave, tries to get him to identify as Khitan, and flies away without revealing his identity.

When Qiao and Azhu reunite they realize they’re in love and want to raise sheep together, and the plot gets crazier as various schemes and scandals are revealed. Assassinations, secret daughters, a mysterious “Lead Brother,” vengeance against the man he thinks killed his parents, more disguises and horrible tragedy. In the last 20 minutes suddenly there’s a new badass lady character, Azhu’s sister Azi (Cya Liu, LIMBO), who seems cool but is kind of a psycho (she burns Lady Ma’s face off with acid powder). She also plays a great trick where she fires an arrow at a villain who catches it, but the side of the arrow poisons his hand.

You get to see hundreds of arrows are fired, twirling wind powers, several innocent horses getting caught up in this business.

There’s a spectacular sword duel, more rooftop running, more magic energy battles. When Qiao almost dies he remembers a childhood discussion of Buddhist philosophy with his Sifu and says, “I’m not a hero, I’m just an ordinary person who holds fast to the right path.” But then he flies through the air firing off a fusillade of punches that alternately sound like roaring dinosaurs and thunderclaps, pushing a guy so hard he knocks over a building, which in my opinion is not very ordinary. It would be dangerous if ordinary persons were going around doing that shit.

I should mention that the movie ends on an absolutely befuddling note. SPOILERS. In a mid-credits scene, the seemingly dead villain Murong Fu (Wu Yue, PARADOX, THE BRINK, IP MAN 4) is revived by his long lost, openly super-villainous father Murong Bo (Ray Lui, FIRESTORM). Then it’s revealed that Qiao Feng’s biological father Qiao Yuanshan (Donnie Yen with wrinkly hands and grey hairs) is still alive, was the one who killed Qiao Feng’s adoptive parents and his Sifu, and also the one who rescued him after the Heroes Gathering fight, and I guess is teaming up with Murong Bo for… something? Up to this point it seemed like a normal self-contained tale, but suddenly it’s part of a cinematic universe, I guess?

We’ll see. Other than that SAKRA is a good example of modern wuxia – high production value, sincere preachiness, old Donnie wearing long hair wigs and falling in love with a young woman, a main theme that sounds like a spaghetti western, and a bunch of very good fights. If you’ve seen any of the RUROUNI KENSHIN movies you’ll recognize this fast, complex, joyously cartoonish style of action, because Yen is credited as action director alongside his long time collaborator Kenji Tanigaki (who did those movies, and SNAKE EYES). The choreographers are Yan Hua (KILL ZONE) and Yu Kang (RAGING FIRE).

After seeing SAKRA I also watched THE PRINCESS BLADE, a movie from 2001 that was a big deal at the time for people into these sorts of things. It’s a Japanese production, but they somehow convinced Yen to come be the action director, and I believe that’s how he met Tanigaki. The fights are great, Yumiko Shaku (GODZILLA TOKYO S.O.S.) is cool in the title role, and it has the irresistible hook of transplanting a samurai story to a post-apocalyptic world. Unfortunately I think the story is too weak to find it very compelling in the long stretches between action scenes, which is especially a shame since it’s supposedly based on the great Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub)’s manga Lady Snowblood. Admittedly I only know the movie of that one, but I see only faint, superficial connections between the two. In LADY SNOWBLOOD, Oyuki’s mother was imprisoned for murdering one of four bandits who raped her and killed her family, so she conceives her while in jail and has her raised to be a killer and avenge the other three. In THE PRINCESS BLADE she’s just the heir to a royal bloodline. That’s like 1% as cool. To be generous.

But the choreography is fun and we got an important decades-long international partnership out of it. THE PRINCESS BLADE is on DVD, SAKRA is on Hi-Yah! and on DVD and blu-ray. (Try to disregard the shitty cover.)

This entry was posted on Monday, November 27th, 2023 at 7:06 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Fantasy/Swords, Martial Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Sakra”

  1. In case it wasn’t obvious the movie only adapts part of the novel so that’s why it ends like that. Jin Yong’s books mostly exist in the same continuity but they usually advance time by generations between books or at least tie up all the plot threads by the end. IIRC the guy in the cage in the opening scene is a whole secondary protagonist and the movie was like “we don’t have time to get into any of that”.

  2. It is structurally very similar to Jing Wong’s Evil Cult / Kung Fu Cult Master / Lord of the Wu Tang. Someone read a Jin Yong book and went “wow, this thing that happens 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through the book would make an awesome movie scene” and decided to adapt the story in a way that discards a billion subplots in the beginning to rush to the Big Scene and then kinda noodles a bit through the soap opera hijinks that the books mostly consist of before abruptly ending.

  3. I think Donnie Yen met Kenji Tanigaki in the Yen-directed 1998 film Ballistic Kiss, which Tanigaki did stunts for. They might actually have met before.

    I watched the UK Blu-ray, and that had all the mid-credits scenes before the end credits. I wonder if that was something they changed for just that release. I read all the review talking about a mid-credit scene, but when I watched the end credits I didn’t see anything, and it this clear that does scenes was before the end credits in the UK Blu-ray.

  4. I really like Princess Blade, particularly the way it’s post-apocalyptic but not in an exciting way. Everything’s just kind of broken and sad, sort of a contrast with the frenetic fight scenes. The Lady Snowblood connection is incredibly tenuous though, if it didn’t mention it in the credits you’d have no idea.

  5. Cool, I’ve had this one on my ‘to buy’ list for ages. Harry Potter-fu is my least favorite flavour of Wuxia, so it’s good to hear that this, while ridiculous, doesn’t devolve into people throwing diffent-coloured rays at each other (as in MONK COMES DOWN THE MOUNTAIN or something).

  6. There’s a recent Donnie Yen movie where it looks like he’s in a fat suit the entire time. Enter The Fat Dragon, it’s on Tubi. Can anyone vouch for that one?

  7. Not sure if you care enough to make the correction since it’s incredibly pedantic. But Shang Tsung is the Mortal Kombat boss that does Soul Stealing, Shao Kahn is the big lord humungus looking fucker with a hammer.

  8. This was awesome. I saw Enter the Fat Dragon and don’t remember much. But it’s a remake of a Sammo Hung movie where he didn’t need a fat suit so that’s problematic.

  9. ENTER THE FAT DRAGON is a solidly entertaining remake of the Sammo Hung original, yeah Yen’s in a Fat Suit but it impacts his agility and fearsome ass-kicking skills not one iota, which I read as an homage to Hung’s own awe-inspiring fighting prowess and problematic only if you forget HK Cinema also gave us RAPED BY AN ANGEL, not just a legit flick, but a 5-film franchise.

  10. Please somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my understanding that it is not considered insensitive in Chinese culture to call a fat person fat (or a bald person bald or a short person short or, perhaps most shockingly to Westerners, a black person black). There’s a bluntness to the culture that can seem harsh or cruel to outsiders, especially in terms of how socially acceptable it is to comment on the appearance of others. It took me a long time to figure out that, although every fat character in Chinese movies is called “Fatty,” it is not necessarily derogatory. Comments that would be insults over here are just statements of fact over there. ENTER THE FAT DRAGON might be problematic to American eyes but I doubt its primary audience takes it that way.

  11. I don’t think the title is the problem. While overweight people seem to be the last group that is mostly socially acceptable to make fun of (Seriously, it’s odd how many “He eats a lot” and “Fatty fall down” jokes are still made in today’s popculture) and even the term “fat” seems to be only partly offensive (After all the term for “Criticizing someone’s weight” is “fatshaming”), we are also currently in the “You shouldn’t play someone if you don’t belong to them” part of figuring out how to treat everybody correctly. Even Brendan Fraser’s fatsuit Oscar wasn’t without criticism for that reason. And just because it’s okay in one culture, doesn’t mean we can’t feel uncomfortable about it.

  12. If you look up Lam Suet’s filmography, like 1 in 3 of the characters he’s played are named “Fatty,” “Fatso,” “Fat ___,” etc.

  13. It’s the nickname part that I maybe don’t quite get. I can understand being blunt when describing another person and how that could be more acceptable socially in other places. Heck, we talk too euphemistically in this country sometimes and it can get a little ridiculous. But when you nickname a fat person “Fatty” you are making their weight their primary characteristic, and you’re constantly pointing it out to them. I struggle to see how that can been seen neutrally. But, hey, it’s not my culture.

  14. I must have seen 20+ movies with Wong Fei-Hung and his trusty friends Buck Tooth and Fatty. And these aren’t even comedies.

    Friends of mine who have traveled around in Asia says this “directness” is popular all over the place. If you have a shaven head it’s “Mister Melon Head” and if you are a larger person it’s “Fat man coming through” and so on.

  15. I’ve worked with a lot of Koreans and Hong Kongers and they can be blunt and socially fucked up, but the idea that naming a character “Fat” is just descriptive is crazy. Take Suet Lam’s case…he may be called Fatty in a lot of flicks but that’s because it’s either in a comedy or, even in a more serious action movie, he’s playing a dipshit. He may be in a Johnnie To movie but he’s still going to literally slip on a a banana peel and lose his gun. Sammo Hung got called Fatty in a bunch of comedies but you wouldn’t see him playing a CEO or feared gangster and have that name. If I’ve seen one thing working with a lot of Asians is they LOVE punching down.

    There’s a touch of nuance…a character could be a Fatty and not be a total clown. They could be loyal or help out or even do fights. We had the same type of characters. Like, a loyal sidekick who is always there to help the hero and may even show up in the end with a gun to help save the day. But theyr’e played by Stephen Fetchit who’s character mostly is lazy and falls asleep when he’s supposed to be doing something important, or is too scared of the fake ghost in the mansion and his eyes bug out a lot.

    I still ahve discussions with 60-some year olds who insist that characetrs like that are not racist and Amos and Andy are just comic characters and their actions have nothing to do with being black. Sure grandma, go to bed.

    I personally though don’t get the idea that people should only play the type of person they are…like only a gay person should play a gay person and only a trans pperson should play that. I mean I get why that notion exists because for a long time that was the ONLY way thngs were. But shit if Brenden Fraser wants to wear a fat suit, go for it. The types of people who would tend to agree with me is actors. I actually once had this discussion with a gay friend of mine who said gay people should only play gay people in movies, and I was like you gonna give up playing straights? He didn’t love that idea.

    So basically, it’s nice to have some awareness because that shit was missing forever in movies. But also can now cripple them (I mean physically impair them) with too much of this shit no one much cares THAT much about except Twitter socialists who used to believe all women except when they’re Israeli women in which everything is staged. It’s nice to not be flagrant racists liek the old days and we can all agree no one shoudl wear blackface in movies anymore unless it’s Robert Downey Jr. in which case it’s fucking hilarious.

  16. I watched Sakra today and it was terrific. My biggest criticism is that Donnie is meant to be 30 (and all the make-up in the world cannot convince you of that) and some plot points are a bit rushed. But the action and the melodrama delivers. The middle section action scene, Donnie verses his former friends is the highlight of the film. Its so good.

  17. I’m not sure I understood everything that was going on in SAKRA all the time, but applying the “don’t try to understand it, feel it” principle, I felt like I bloody loved this. I’m a sucker for wire fu rooftop jumping and this had some great stuff on that front, although I’d say the final fight lent to heavily on green screen. It’s good that Vern mentioned the “comedy moment” where Donnie kicks the guy’s head through a table, because part of me wanted a little lighter tone, maybe a comedy sidekick, but then again the earnestness and melodrama really paid off for me, so maybe not. Clearly, Donnie has a good idea by now of who his screen character should be – fat dragons notwithstanding – and if he can use his clout to make more like this, I’ll not be sorry.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>