Śakra (天龙八部之乔峰传) review

Director: Donnie Yen
Cast : Donnie Yen, Chen Yuqi, Cya Liu, Kara Wai, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung, Grace Wong, Du Yuming, Ray Lui, Michelle Hu, Tsui Siu-ming
Genre: Action/Drama
Run Time : 130 min
Opens : 16 January 2022 (sneaks on 14 and 15 January)
Rating : NC16

Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, was one of the most influential authors in the wuxia (“martial heroes”) genre. His works have inspired numerous adaptations, and Donnie Yen adds to that list with Śakra, based on the 1963 novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils.

It is the Northern Song dynasty in the 1000s. Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen) is the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, a local hero who has won the respect of his peers. He is suddenly framed for murder and accused of being descended from the Khitan people. Forced to abandon his position as the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Qiao Feng vows to discover the truth of his own heritage and he is shunned by his former allies. Qiao Feng meets A Zhu (Chen Yuqi), a maid who serves the Murong family. After he rescues her during an attack, she becomes the only person to still believe him. Qiao Feng and A Zhu travel across the land, with Qiao Feng seeking to make a new, peaceful life far from the Beggars’ Sect. Murong Fu (Wu Yue), A Zhu’s employer, schemes behind the scenes to revive the former Yan Kingdom. Qiao Feng must regain the honour that was stripped of him as he attempts to get to the root of this treachery.

Śakra is an ambitious epic that unfolds on a grand scale. The movie’s big selling point is its action sequences, choreographed by Yen and oft-collaborator Kenji Tanigaki. These sequences combine the elegant wire-fu that is often associated with the wuxia genre with the punchiness and brutality of more contemporary action cinema. Multiple sequences involve hordes of combatants and plenty of destruction of surrounding property. While there is some noticeable use of computer-generated effects, especially when the characters use superpowers including summoning fire or creating clouds of dust, it is nowhere near as egregious as in many Chinese action movies. There still is a tactility to the proceedings and the camera proudly shows off that it is Yen and the other actors doing their own stunts.

Yen is as charismatic and dashing as ever, striking a youthful figure at 59 – though it is perhaps a stretch to believe that Qiao Feng is in his 30s, as repeatedly stated. Qiao Feng is one of Jin Yong’s most beloved creations, and it might take a while for viewers who already have a favourite existing portrayal of the character to warm to Yen’s, but he commands the screen whenever he’s on it.

Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is a lengthy novel with three main characters: Duan Yu, Qiao Feng and Xuzhu. In a similar way to how the 1977 movie The Battle Wizard focused on Duan Yu, Śakra focuses on Qiao Feng, attempting to streamline the story while keeping open the possibility of a sequel that might introduce the other two main characters. Unfortunately, Śakra struggles to coherently lay out the complicated web of characters. As impressive as the action sequences are, the dramatic scenes are often unwieldy and awkward. Tonally, the movie wants to fit in with the grandiose, over-the-top theatrics and melodrama associated with the wuxia genre, but also wants to be a little more grounded and relatable for audiences who aren’t already dyed-in-the-wool Jin Yong fans, and it does not quite pull this balance off. The movie’s pace is sometimes halting, as if it suddenly realises that it has a whole bunch of plot to get to after a protracted action scene.

Jin Yong has been called “China’s Tolkien” and in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yen refers to Jin Yong’s work as being akin to Shakespeare, and says “wuxia is Chinese Marvel, except it has a lot [richer] history and culture behind it.” There is an intent to set up a franchise, with the ending leaving things open for the continuation of the story. All of Jin Yong’s works, apart from Ode to Gallantry, are connected to varying degrees, but they also span centuries, so it remains to be seen how far Yen’s ambitions stretch.

Summary: Śakra boasts explosive, elaborate action sequences that are as elegant as they are brutal. The movie also features Donnie Yen in fine form, directing and producing in addition to starring. It’s clear that Yen wants to do justice to the source material, Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, which has inspired numerous earlier film and TV adaptations. However, this movie’s world-building falters, and there seems to be a struggle to stay faithful to the source material while making something that will appeal to modern audiences accustomed to blockbuster franchises. While the production values of Śakra are considerably higher than that of the average TVB series, this story seems more suited to a TV format.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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