Donnie Yen‘s Sakra (or The Legend of Qiao Feng; 天龙八部之乔峰传) begins like a Western, the set-up reveals a Feudal Chinese world up in arms. It frequently asks, “Am I a bad person?”
Life in the frontier depends on Qiao Feng (Yen) to keep the peace. But when he’s accused of murdering his adoptive parents and some monks, the community wants retribution and instead of dispensing cowboy justice by hanging him, he voluntarily accepts being exiles, and for the remainder of the film, tries to get to the bottom of this conspiracy.
This adaptation of Jin Yong’s serialised fiction, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, is different. At first, I thought there’d be the divine getting involved in mortal affairs, but what’s presented is a fictionalised world that’s almost akin to George Stevens’ Shane. Here, the tale concerns matters of loyalty and righteousness, but unless viewers know what saṃsāra means, what this film is about might feel confusing.
The original version is even more complex as it apparently a lot more than politics. Anyone who has read it will know that the lives of Feng, and two other individuals–Duan Yu and Xuzhu–are intertwined. Their relationship with one another and fidelity to their clans are challenged, and that’s just the basic premise!
But in Sakra not only does Kang Min (Grace Wong) accuse him of murdering her husband, but also everyone in this Begger’s Sect believes he has Khitan blood. This group is considered a threat to the way of life in China. When there’s a greater war brewing, to say who is right or wrong and why these different kingdoms are at odds is just another aspect of this film tries to mediate on.
In a film that’s just as much about succession than solving a murder case, the mix of narratives takes effort to fully understand. Feng promises to get to the bottom of being framed, and he’s certainly taking his time at it. To watch Donnie Yen bring in more of his fantastic martial arts choreography is all I need, but on my third watch, I grew to appreciate the deeper depths the story that’s rewritten by committee is going for.
To watch how Feng can eke out a new life does not differ from what the pioneers did when headed west. But when their past is chasing after them, they’ll have to do something about it. When Feng’s relations with the Han worsen, he’s dragged back into the conflict.
Overall, Sakra moves like a Chinese opera with some great wuxia moments. There’s a lot going on, including a budding romance between him and Azhu (Chen Yuqi) that Min doesn’t approve of. They’re sisters, and when the former is gravely injured and Feng wants her to live, that’s when the story gets exciting again!
I must note this movie is also Donnie’s first solo effort as a director. It’s decent enough to watch. And as for what this actor and filmmaker wants to do next, he’ll either commit to working behind the scenes more–like Stephen Chow has switched gears to now be an executive producer–or stick to acting. It’s tough to say right now, but I’m keen to keep track of everything he does.
3½ Stars out of 5