Donnie Yen returns to the (co-)director’s chair in an adaptation of Jin Yong’s classic wuxia Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, Sakra (天龍八部之喬峰傳, Tiānlóng Bā Bù zhī Qiáo Fēng Zhuàn). 59-year-old Yen also stars as the tragic wuxia hero Qiao Feng who is repeatedly stated to be around 30, though he also appears in a handful of scenes as Qiao’s father which might help to explain the casting choice. Even so, Yen mostly pulls it off while striking an authoritative figure fighting for justice in an unjust world.
As the opening titles reveal, this was a fairly tragic age in which “those who had feelings were all caught in it”. The Northern Song Dynasty faces invasion by the Khitan-led Liao, while the Yan are also vying to restore their lost power. Discovered as a foundling and raised by a Song couple, Qiao Feng joins the notorious Beggar Gang and becomes a powerful martial artist often defending their territory against Khitan raiders. After rescuing a young man held captive by a monk who describes him as a human sacrifice, Qiao returns to be accused of treachery by the Beggars. His leader, Ma, has been murdered, and Ma’s wife Min (Grace Wong Kwan-hing) claims she saw Qiao do it. Ma had apparently told her that he feared Qiao would kill him because he had come into an incriminating letter which suggests that Qiao’s biological parents were in fact Khitans and he is some kind of treacherous sleeper agent.
Qiao realises there’s nothing he can really do to counter their suspicion except leave and discover the truth about his origins for himself. Unfortunately, however, everyone he could have asked ends up dead with him framed as the killer. Meanwhile, he wrestles with questions of identity asking himself if he can be both a “good” person and a “Khitan” but later coming to doubt his allegiance to Song after witnessing some soldiers massacre a group a of Khitan peasants out on the road. While investigating he ends up saving the life of mysterious spy Azhu (Chen Yuqi) who like him is looking for her origins, having been told by Yan warlord Murong Fu (Wu Yue) for whom she is working that he would tell her if she stole a scroll from the Shaolin temple. Azhu is the only one continues to believe in him, reassuring Qiao that regardless of his identity he is still a “good person”, and the pair soon fall in love vowing to leave the martial arts world behind to raise cattle in the country once their respective quests are concluded successfully.
Even so, he later claims not to fight only for his land but for a righteous world against the amoral machinations of the villainous Murong Fu and all those who conspired with him. The Beggar Gang is not entirely innocent either, subject to a struggle for succession that made Liao’s existence inconvenient to some while Qiao is later confronted by the realities of a situation he may have misunderstood. Qiao may learn the secret of his origins, but is also left with a new mission in the necessity of stopping Yan’s despotic bid to reclaim Song, riding straight into battle with only a loyal companion at his side.
Though struggling under the sheer complexity of Jin Yong’s sprawling novel, Yen and Kam showcase the key incidents such as the opening rescue of Duan Zhengchun’s son, and Liao’s epic battle against the Beggars after wading straight into a meeting knowing he’d likely be killed but looking for a doctor for Azhu. The action scenes are visceral and impressive, making the most of the movie’s high production values with a mixture of CGI and practical effects as Qiao faces off against hundreds of men at once or makes daring wire-assisted leaps from under a dome of enemy shields. There is also a genuine poignancy in the tragic romance between Azhi and Qiao who just want to be free of their legacies and the machinations of the martial arts world to live quiet lives as innocent farmers but are reminded there is no real escape from the political reality. Having covered half of Liao’s arc in Jin Yong’s text, a door is left open for a sequel in which Qiao continues to pursue justice and clear his name while hinting at a battle still to come in world in which “those who have feelings are all caught”.
Sakra is released in the US on DVD & Blu-ray June 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.
Original trailer (English subtitles)