You may be aware of the actor Donnie Yen, known for his roles in the IP Man series, as well as John Wick 4 and Star Wars: Rogue One, but you may not be aware of the director Donnie Yen. He has six films under his belt, Sakra being the latest – they’ve rarely made it over to our shores.
Sakra is a wuxia martial arts movie that takes place in the Song Dynasty of Chinese feudal history, with ‘wuxia’ being a hybrid of fantasy and martial arts. It’s given us crossover greats such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and is most recognisable for the soaring great leaps that its characters make from rooftop to rooftop.
Sakra has Donnie Yen playing Kiu Fung / Qiau Feng, the leader of the Beggars’ Clan. Kiu Fung is an unmatched warrior who has mastered the art of the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms (at least in this movie, it manifests as a kind of sonic boom that tosses enemies into bamboo structures as if they were a flicked penny). He’s considered a hero by pretty much everyone, until he’s accused of the murder of the deputy chief of the Beggars, Ma Dayuan, by the chief’s wife Lady Ma.
As if that wasn’t enough ignominy, he heads back home to find his parents and master killed too. He’s clearly being framed, as soldiers spot him holding the bodies and raise the alarms. We will admit to having a bit of a chuckle at the movie’s expense at this point: it gets borderline ridiculous that Qiau keeps falling into the same trap of holding corpses and getting spotted with blood on his hands. He’s like a very well-trained and bloody bee bouncing against the window, and Sakra feels like it’s repeating the same scenario over and over again.
In the last of these traps, he crosses paths with A Zhu (Yuqi Chen). She’s got a very Ethan Hunt ability to create lifelike masks, which becomes incredibly helpful later on in the plot. She’s injured in the escape from the trap, and Qiau pledges to bring her to the one healer who can save her. The problem being that the healer is in the Beggars’ Clan, who are convening with all the other clans and tribes of the area to form a plan for killing Qiau.
This ‘Let’s Get Qiau’ convention is a plum bit of martial arts action. If you’ve come to Sakra for Donnie Yen doing Donnie Yen things, then this sequence may make the whole film worthwhile. It’s a wonderful setup – turning up to a meeting that’s been setup to discuss your death – and Sakra knows it. Qiau jumps into the viper’s nest, shares a few drinks with those vipers, and then starts kicking ass. For nearly thirty minutes, an entire temple gets obliterated by warriors punching through it. It’s as inventive and ludicrous as any action sequence you will see.
Up to this point we were checking our watches. Sakra isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s a picturesque one, and Director of Photography Chi-Ying Chan has clearly brought their A-game. Temples are framed like paintings, and it revels in moonlit landscapes. But the pace is ponderous, with a lot of posturing and hand-wringing over Qiau’s origins (he’s an orphan trying to find out whether he’s a Song or a hated Khitan). Plus there’s the weird repetition of Qiau being framed in almost identical situations. We found ourselves drifting and not particularly enjoying Sakra.
Lucky then for that middle-third. From then on, we were invested, as the movie cranks through the gears a little more earnestly than it did before. The conspiracy to frame him is uncovered, the relationship between A Zhu and Qiau develops, and the real enemies of Sakra move into the ring. It just feels more like an actual movie than a sequence of postcards being flipped through.
There are still quirks that make Sakra feel a bit of an oddball. It felt like large swathes of Sakra had been left on the cutting room floor. Qiau suddenly gains sidekicks that he’s barely held a conversation with before. Flashbacks come and go without paying off. Sakra is very capable of being choppy and incomprehensible, which is all the more odd because it also feels on the flabby side at two hours and ten minutes.
It might be the translation, but the dialogue is stilted. The characters love to call each other ‘naughty’, as if it’s a word that should be ever used in a dramatic context. It doesn’t help that the movie is earnest all the way through, with the tone firmly stuck in tragedy and drama. And the sound-effects department feels like it has been taken over by an 80’s DJ, as the wuxia moves sound like dinosaur roars, car horns and more. It dragged us out of our immersion on more than one occasion.
The result is a messy martial arts movie. It’s simultaneously long and prone to sudden bursts of incomprehensible action. It’s deadly serious, but capable of creating chortles. But there are some gorgeous shots, genuine emotion and a few action sequences that have you fist-pumping. Sakra is a long, two-hour jumble of a martial arts epic, but in that jumble is some wuxia gold.