Monday, June 12, 2023

The Ultimate Sakra-fice: Sakra (2023) Review

Directors: Donnie Yen, Kam Ka-Wai

Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Yukee Chen, Liu Yase, Kara Hui, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung, Grace Wong, Do Yuming, Ray Lui, Tsui Siu-Ming, Cai Xiangyu, Michelle Hu, Zhao Huawei, Yu Kang, Xu Xiangdong, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Cheung Siu Fai, Cya Liu, Kara Wai, Kenji Tanigaki, Hua Yan


Donnie Yen has solidified himself as one of the biggest action stars in the work in the last 15 years. For those who follow Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, we’ve known that for much, much longer than that - but the international success of the Ip Man films along with stints in Hollywood blockbusters like John Wick: Chapter 4 have made sure that his name was synonymous with action godhood for the entire world. 


How does he decide to cash his blank check of this fame for his first directorial effort in almost 20 years? He decided to do an adaption of the wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. It’s not the most obvious choice, mainly since his brand of action has been reasonably modern, gritty, and grounded even when doing classic kung fu flicks like the Ip Man series. Yet, as a star and director, Yen tackles big-scale wire-fu, chi powers, and classic heroic tropes for Sakra


Blending 90s wuxia elements with modern flair, Sakra is the stunning martial arts epic one would want to see these days. It’s brimming with the genre's tropes but manages to utilize the modern aspect of filmmaking to navigate the threading between seasoned classic storytelling choices and bigger-than-life blockbuster tidbits. In a way, it’s aiming for the same blend of modernity in stylized classic wuxia storytelling that Tsui Hark has been desperately punching at for years. Still, it never quite gets lost in the haze of razzle-dazzle that makes Hark films feel like so much style over substance. 


For those viewers indoctrinated into the “choices” of cinematic wuxia, Sakra power punches those squarely in the face while simultaneously shouting out words of encouragement. Almost immediately, the film drops its audience into the world of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, as it quickly recaps the childhood of the film’s hero, Xiao Feng. Orphaned and then raised by a variety of monks and homeless kung fu heroes, it’s a recap that immediately starts building the world of martial warriors for its viewer, so strap in. 


It’s not the exposition vomit or slew of characters and plot that could plague some of the classic wuxia films (did someone say Chor Yuen? No?) but it does attempt to force the audience into the world in a more natural way than just starting with Donnie Yen’s Xiao Feng being immediately thrust into a conspiracy to destroy his name and have him killed by his peers. Why would someone want to dethrone the king of the beggar martial arts clan? You guessed it, Xiao is one badass motherfucker and he’s a major threat to the power-hungry villains of the film. 


Watching Donnie Yen struggle with the dastardly plan to destroy him as his friends and frienemies all take arms against him for crimes he did not commit is an excellent choice for the iconic action star. He’s always been great at playing the dark vs light elements of heroes, even ones who are as “quirky cool” as Xiao Feng and the film plays into his strengths here are the lead. It helps that his surrounding cast all seem game to play off of his strengths, enough so that even his possibly romantic subplot with Azhu, played by Yukee Chen, feels far more about feeding into Feng’s character arc than exploring the complexities of their relationship. 


Yet, that’s what this film is about. This is about Feng’s journey as he uncovers pieces of his past and why people are out to frame him for murder. The mystery that surrounds his framing is fairly by the books in terms of a wuxia though. Thus, the film plays out in a classic wuxia meandering manner, so those not integrated into the narrative style of wuxia will definitely find its plot a bit unfocused, and adding in a busload of characters in the final half that may not always play into the story of this movie. It can be a lot, but Sakra accomplishes it with a decent hand - often sacrificing the logic of its plot for the sake of an emotional beat or powering it through to the following massive action set piece. 


When Sakra gets to those action set pieces, it’s a rather impressive sight to behold. Naturally, Yen returned to his main man for the film, Kenji Tanigaki, who is no stranger to massive sword-clashing epics with his work on the Rurouni Kenshin series. For this one, he gets to lean into that 90s wire-fu of people flying around the room while slashing, punching, and kicking and - let’s be honest - it’s blissfully fun. Not to mention, the film loves to play with its choreography and have fun with it, particularly in the sequence where he must fight all of the martial heroes in a great hall after they drink to their broken friendship. 


Granted, like many other modern wuxia films, Sakra is using a lot more CGI to accomplish its feats of light foot technique or chi power particularly when our hero meets the big bad at the end, but it’s managing to find a strong balance of bone-crunching martial arts and slightly superhero-inspired feats of fancy. 


Judging by the almost immediate backlash and sinister remarks online towards Sakra, it’s safe to say that this isn’t going to be a film for everyone. It’s a film that heavily leans into some classic wuxia tropes, unsurprisingly considering its source material, but it’s a film that smartly blends in a lot of modern elements too. The action is big and bold, the storytelling continually builds (stay during the credits for one of the silliest sequel teases of all time), and Yen is bringing all of his A-game to every moment.

Sakra is definitely a fascinating blend of old and new, powered by a fantastic performance from Donnie Yen, and some great action from Tanigaki. Consider me a superfan of this one and I can’t wait for this to be an entire franchise.


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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