Updated: Oct 31
The bristling and braced for even more spikier combative engagements are blissfully blared during Sakra’s opening fight wizardry, which takes place in the middle of a nowhere yet everywhere part of Wu Lin (a Jiang Hu subworld for martial artists.) It’s a typical stylized wuxia confrontational frenzy in a simple Inn that sublimely sets the tone of the upcoming multi-threatening storylines that could purge the soul of China.
There are intriguing obvious and unobvious pecking orders, all with urgent agendas in search of a sharper edge. When each go toe-to-toe, you can feel the maniacal mood. Sakra is a film for brave pumping hearts, cold calculating minds. It’s the Song Dynasty in all of its customary histrionics that include the Begger Clan and Shaolin, albeit amid encircling angst created by the Khitan Liao Empire and the secretive and diabolical Great Yan dynastic state built by a former general of the Tang Dynasty. Yes, this all happens during the opening fight.
Sakra is an awe-inspiring martial arts extravaganza that flawlessly showcases the unparalleled fight choreography that is synonymous with the source material, the classic wuxia novel written by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Directed with precision and artistry by Donnie Yen, who also plays the lead character, Qiao Feng, the leader of the Beggar Clan, and the outrageous fight choreography of Kenji Tanigaki, this film takes the genre to new heights, that will leave audiences breathless with its mesmerizing display of combat prowess and fluidity.
Yen and Kenji seamlessly blend the Hong Kong highwire antics influenced by the father of wire-fu, Chen Xiao-dung (aka Ching Siu-tung) with a traditional array of marital artist skills and a dollop of fantasy to reflect the superhuman abilities of the demi-gods and semi-devils that inhabit this vibrant world. Each fight scene is a symphony of precision, grit and grace, with the combatants exhibiting an almost otherworldly, ability, agility, and strength.
In fact, Chen was the first director to feature over-the-top crazy wirework with blistering paced swirling sword duels shot at 18 fps (frames per second) that starred a legitimate martial artist playing a hero based upon another famous wuxia novel; Jet Li in Swordsman II (1992), its source material being Jin Yong’s Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (aka The Smiling, Proud Warrior).
Set during the early stages of the Song Dynasty, Sakra focuses on the life and times of Qiao Feng, from an orphaned baby, raised by Song peasants and his climb to becoming the leader of the Beggar Clan in Wu Lin. He was taught Ching Gong, a weightless skill that affords him to jump high and leap over great distances, as well as learning Chi Gong, a breathing skill to increases his Chi (inner energy), where he can use his Chi to heal people or as a final means of self-defense to obliterate an enemy using the 18 Subduing Dragon Palm Fist, so named by Jin Yong in honor of the founder of the Shaolin Temple martial arts, the Indian Buddhist Monk Da Mo, and his development of the 18 Buddhist Fists form in A.D. 527.
Qiao Feng also knows the sucking Chi skill Proud Dragon Repents, where he could pull people towards him then reverse blast them with the Subduing Dragon Palm Fist with either great force or just enough power to knock them out. Conversely in Jin Yong’s Smiling, Proud Warrior, he had a character use a different Chi sucking skill, Xi Xing Da Fa, which a transgendered villain would use to suck the Chi out of her opponent’s bodies in order to cause them a painful death.
When Qiao Feng is framed for killing his Shifu (the head Abbot of Shaolin), his adoptive parents and the deputy Beggar Clan leader Ma, and then accused of being a Khitan, he was stripped of his Beggar status and became mortal enemy number one, where everybody in the World of Wu Lin were now out to kill him. Yes, Donnie Yen’s character was John Wicked, so it’s no coincidence Yen is an assassin in John Wick 4 (2023). It’s the Yin Yang balance.
Qiao Feng’s quest is to get to the bottom of these lies by travelling to his birthplace, Yanmen Pass. Along the way he accidently injures Azhu, a young woman trying to find her family roots. He promises to help her no matter what, even if that means Sakra-ficing his own life.
The Flavors of Sakra’s Powerful Fights
The beauty of choreographing fights from a well written wuxia novel is that the fights are often prodigiously detailed. When I began writing about martial arts cinema in 1992, my second interview was with Chen Xiao-dong in Hong Kong. He noted, “When it comes to these films [like Swordsman II], first, use your imagination to create the fight you want to do and then figure out a way to do it later.” This sort of mentality lead to the use of highly extravagant multiangle wirework set ups and elaborate camera choreography to shoot the fights.
It’s why in Sakra the attention to detail during each fight where every punch, kick, and weapon wielding are intricately choreographed to tell a story within the action. Kenji and Yen have deep understandings of the characters and their motivations, infusing each fight with emotional depth and narrative significance. Whether it's a duel between rivals or a desperate struggle for survival, every battle resonates with intensity and meaning.
Kenji’s experience as a fight choreographer working with Yen over the years in learning Hong Kong fight choreography, even though they use previsualization, when it comes time to shooting the fight, things still change on the set at a moment’s notice.
For example, during Sakra, Yen would ask Kenji if they could incorporate a video move he saw on Tic Tok or when he had a thought about doing a far out visual gag that sounded impossible to do, the “let’s try” attitude often leads to creating memorable images of pure golden magic. It’s why each of the three main fights in Sakra, have different discernable flavors that deliver a visual feast that will satisfy even the most discerning martial arts aficionados. Every movement, every strike, and every acrobatic feat is meticulously executed, reflecting the dedication and expertise of the performers and the creative teams behind the scenes.
The opening Inn fight emulates Qiao Feng’s gentlemanly nature, the second, where everybody in Wu Lin is trying to kill him, reflects his vicious anger and the violence he’s capable of creating, and the finale fight reveals the helplessness of his situation as he needs to conquer himself by understanding certain spiritual aspects of Chi.
Yet the pervading energy of each fight is unified by showing the destructive power of the fighters via destroying many of the sets and props by smashing them into smithereens.
Beyond the technical brilliance, the fight choreography in Sakra serves a larger purpose; it embodies the themes and spirit of the novel. It explores the duality of human nature, the struggle between light and darkness, and the pursuit of personal growth and enlightenment. The battles not only showcase the physical prowess yet they also convey the internal conflicts and moral dilemmas faced by the characters, which adds depth and complexity to the tale.
Sakra is played with edge and appetite, a film you can really sink your teeth into.