Sakra attempts the impossible—to adapt one of the most complex Wuxia sagas ever for a two-hour movie. It succeeds thanks to spectacular Wuxia choreography.
Sakra (天龙八部之乔峰传) Synopsis
Adapted from Jin Yong’s Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, Sakra narrates the tragic story of Qiao Feng, the valiant Beggers’ Clan leader whose life is turned upside-down after his Khitan ethnicity is exposed. Subsequently framed for the murders of his foster parents and teacher, Qiao Feng’s life would have hit rock bottom had it not been for the appearance of Azhu, a maid he rescues during a confrontation. Qiao Feng’s determination to heal Azhu of her injuries then lands him in a brutal showdown with the whole of Wulin.
Last year, while reviewing New Kung Fu Cult Master 1, I highlighted how there have been some 15 depictions of Jin Yong’s Zhang Wuji since the 1960s.
Qiao Feng, one of the three protagonists of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, or Tianlong Babu (天龙八部), has a lower count at eight—nine if you include Donnie Yen’s version. This doesn’t mean the character is less popular, though. In fact, in most Chinese online polls, Qiao Feng consistently ranks top or second place as far as popularity with Wuxia fans is concerned.
Yup. Qiao Feng is one of Jin Yong’s most popular characters ever, beloved for his valour and masculine steeliness. The reason for the lower number of depictions is instead because two movie adaptations of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils did not attempt to condense the entire saga—the story is simply too long and complex.
1977’s The Battle Wizard and 1994’s The Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain completely omitted the character. These (truly hilarious) adaptations focus on the other two protagonists. 1982’s Gang Master and 1984’s Dragon Story experimented with presenting the Qiao Feng story on the big screen. But the former, weirdly, changed all names and the time period, while the latter feels like a choppy regurgitation of the 1982 TVB television series.
What I’m highlighting is this. With Sakra, Donnie Yen seems to be capitalizing on the easy popularity of one of Jin Yong’s most legendary works, but in truth, his challenges are frighteningly monumental. Looming over him are unforgiving expectations from long-time fans of the Qiao Feng persona. He also has to condense a story that even a mini-series would struggle to properly tell. The latter is a task that few have attempted.
In the face of these challenges, I would say, the action director took it in his stride and delivered. That is, largely delivered. Sakra has issues with pacing, character explorations, and wrapping up; the messy epilogue is akin to a panicky dumping of all leftovers into a pot. You never do feel the poignant love between Qiao Feng and Azhu too. But despite these flaws, the movie still does a reasonable job of summarizing the earlier adventures of Qiao Feng. (The events narrated in the second half of the novel are omitted)
Some parts do not completely make sense, not unless you’ve read the novel or watched any of the TV series. But the gist is there and Jin Yong’s most important message in Demi-Gods is outlined—how racial prejudice is a stupefying force that can easily be manipulated.
For an impossible storytelling task at hand, this hits the mark, IMO.
As for the action, this is a straight five out of five. Repeat, 5/5. I entered the cinema expecting to be satisfied; it is a Donnie Yen movie, after all. I didn’t expect to be so completely swept up by the raw energy and exhilaration that permeated every fight.
It wasn’t just fluid motion choreography, immaculate camerawork, or the meticulous definition of every strike. It was the symphonic composition of every battle. Kinetic opuses that consistently sounded climactic highs when I demanded them most.
Such as how Qiao Feng executed his signature Xianglong Shiba Zhang, the “Dragon-Subduing Palm,” whenever I most expected him to.
Or how he never failed to blast away an entire group of opponents when I silently called for it.
Sakra didn’t once disappoint as far as these moments are concerned; it was as if the Wuxia choreography was reacting to my expectations. And for that, I’m quite inclined to ignore the shortcomings in storytelling and pacing.
Coming back to New Kung Fu Cult Master parts 1 and 2, I previously shared how I longed for revised storylines given I’ve watched the story so many times. The same goes for Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. FYI, Starhub is currently streaming the latest TV adaptation every weekday. I’ve already watched this last year so I’m re-watching.
Sakra doesn’t come with heavy rewriting, and because of that, the story could sometimes feel lethargic, i.e., a regurgitation. But with all those magnificent Dragon palms strikes decimating the unworthy every five minutes, it didn’t matter to me. TBH, I barely even thought about it.
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