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‘Sakra’ (review)

Well Go USA

Sakra isn’t just a martial arts film, it’s a wuxia film.

That particular flavor of Chinese pulp wherein heroes fly into beautiful fights as easily as they deftly debate the philosophical implications of their chosen profession has produced, in the 21st Century, some of the biggest international triumphs of the Chinese language cinema: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; The Assassin; and Shadow all spring to mind as exciting, visually arresting wuxia pictures that captured audience attention all over the world.

Add Sakra to the list.

Donnie Yen’s (he serves double duty as both director and star here) adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a legendary Cantonese pulp novel, doesn’t have the same visual assuredness as the other films I mentioned but there’s tremendous energy in the camera as it sweeps around its combatants.

The action scenes are as assured as anything in recent memory from Chinese cinema.

Yen built his career working over and over again with directors like Yuen Woo-Ping and Wilson Yip and you can see a lot of Yuen in the film’s audacious action beats and Yip in the careful use of visual metaphor in its slower moments.

Sakra’s story is a vortex: it can be hard to follow at times because it concerns powerful forces who have trapped the characters in a subtle web long before the main action of the story has begun.

This is reflected by continual use of circles, wheels, swirls, in the production design. The wheel of fate entraps each of us in the consequences of our own actions. Each move we make brings us closer and closer to the inevitable conclusion, as options disappear.

This fatalism is exactly the sort of subtle philosophical bent that distinguishes wuxia from just being period martial arts.

Yen stars as Qiao Feng, a foreign born orphan whose parents were killed when he was an infant and who has grown up to be the leader of a powerful band of outlaws who recall the main characters from The Water Margin. When Feng is framed for a series of murders, he is ousted from the gang and must go on the run to both clear his name and run down the tantalizing leads he’s found concerning his own origins.

Along the way we’ll get many of the most famous elements of the genre: a knowing servant, a secret manual, a comrade-in-arms who turns out to be unworthy of the hero’s trust, and lethal trickery and disguise.

Many of the other reviews of this film have called out these elements as cliches but I think that’s lacking some clear cultural context. Sakra is a throwback, made consciously to celebrate the genre and to encourage more movies like it to be made. Like most of the great wuxia novels it presents its events as a chapter in the larger tapestry of the lives of its characters.

Complaining about “cliches” is as misguided as it would be if you were watching Silverado and complaining about the use of classical Western archetypes in that film. It is supposed to evoke fond memories of earlier films, which is part of its mission.

The film isn’t perfect: it looks digital in the worst way, and much of the computer effects used to create spectacle are laughably bad.

These factors combine to make the film look cheaper than it is. It also suffers from issues of keeping its story legible and each character visually distinct. These are relatively minor quibbles: we’re dealing with a genre that much like our own hard boiled detective stories, prides itself on complexity of plot.

Enjoy the fights and the philosophy.

Sakra isn’t perfect, but it certainly delivers.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Donnie Yen, Wong Jing
Screenplay by Sheng Lingzhi, Zhu Wei, He Ben,
Chen Li, Shen Lejing, Xu Yifan

Based on Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong
Directed by Donnie Yen 
Starring Donnie Yen, Chen Yuqi, Cya Liu, Wu Yue,
Eddie Cheung, Grace Wong, Ray Lui, Kara Wai

Sakra is now available on Digital HD, and
Arrives on Blu-ray & DVD on June 13th
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