Donnie Yen’s “Śakra” delivers the martial arts wuxia action you want.

In Buddhism, the word Śakra refers to a specific individual, a ruler of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven who analyzes issues of morality with Buddha. Considering the depiction of the character Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen) in the Yen and Kam Ka Wai-directed wuxia Śakra, a man of great physical and mortal strength, borrowing the name of the religious figure makes a certain amount of sense when adapting author Jin Yong’s Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which was published as a serial from September 1963 – May 1966. For those familiar with the name, the audience is immediately clued in that Śakra is more than a tale of individuals with preternatural skills butting heads for audience entertainment; it is a story that may ask big questions to challenge how viewers may respond in the characters’ shoes. What gets in the way of Śakra’s questions is not the complexity of the questions or the knot of a narrative, but its reliance on audience foreknowledge in its race to get to the often-dazzling action. With less of a grip on the *who* and *why*, one finds it hard to feel any sort of investment in how the tale is executed or whether there’s more to come.


Donnie Yen as Qiao Feng in ŚAKRA. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

China, 1000 A.D.. Revered as a great warrior and respected for his leadership, leader of the Beggar’s Sect Qiao Feng finds himself stripped of his rank and leadership responsibilities when he’s accused of murdering one of the group’s masters. In search of the truth, Qiao Feng finds his reputation being sullied in every direction, as though a significant plot is being manufactured to destroy him that only he can see. No matter the outcome, Qiao Feng will discover the truth, unaware that his journey may change the fate of China forever.


Center-Right: Wong Kwan Hing as Mrs. Ma in ŚAKRA. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

It’s important to note right out of the gate that the original story, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, is extensive. It has three protagonists, many supporting characters, and a great deal of intrigue as Yong’s story explores the complexity of familial bonds, as well as the wider view on community, culture, and a country. Even without having read the original story or engaged with any of the various cinematic, televised, or video game adaptations released since 1977’s Shaw Brothers Studio release The Battle Wizard, anyone who watches Śakra is able to understand — if nothing else — that relationships drive the drama, whether in exploration of the self or in relation to others. The first time we see Yen on-screen as Qiao Feng, he’s acting to save a captured individual from great harm, doing so without speaking down to the capturers, without losing his cool (or good humor), and without stooping to belittling the aggressor. This introduction to Qiao Feng tells us all we need to know about the character regarding his world-view and his moral constitution. This matters a great deal as the narrative will provide many reasons why Qiao Feng should break, yet his internal strength is such that it never wavers, making for a remarkably impressive central figure. Time and again throughout the film, Yen’s presentation of Qiao Feng invites the audience to consider whether walking the path of moral righteousness is weaker or stronger than only speaking of the path. Interestingly, the script of this film (a sequel is set up in the various endings we’re shown) doesn’t interrogate the frailty of the opposition who so willingly distrust Qiao Feng despite 30 years’ of evidence to the contrary, nor Qiao Feng’s incurious selflessness.


A scene in ŚAKRA. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

One would think that having a character ultimately vulnerable to malicious intent because they see themselves as morally good and therefore beyond reproach would make for engaging drama. In many cases, this would be correct because of the way that the script weaponizes Qiao Feng’s own incuriosity toward his circumstances or how he sees his own moral code as a weakness. The hindrance is that the 130-minute film wants to cover so much that it almost rushes to get to the end. This is a problem for the recent Illumination release The Super Mario Bros. Movie because one never gets a sense of who things characters are or what they value, but because (a) the internal clock is moving rapidly and (b) the games themselves are fairly straight-forward, one can just roll with it. In Śakra, this is harder to accept when it takes maybe the first 5-10 minutes to go from abandoned baby on a doorstep to the first fight with Yen as Qiao Feng, meaning that the character’s journey to respected leader is all but skipped over with the exception of watching the start of the child’s training with the Shaolin masters and an instance where Qiao Feng speaks with the younger version of the master he’s accused of killing much later. Except the audience never sees the training or observes Qiao Feng engage with anyone, so there’s an expectation that the audience will presume these things based solely on Yen’s personal charisma, his known on-screen capabilities, and reputation for playing honorable characters. Make no mistake, Yen is charming and his usually impressive self making his screen-work a delight to watch, but there’s very little reason for the audience, especially ones without foreknowledge of Yong’s story, to invest in Qiao Feng because no investment is cultivated. We’re told how we should feel more than we’re shown, and when more characters are introduced or when the characters we know do things we don’t understand (even if the characters do), one begins to feel left behind if they don’t just let go entirely. Either way, the audience can’t get the full breadth of what directors Yen and Ka Wai are seeking to accomplish. One would almost prefer that the film were 10-20 minutes longer just so that we could feel some sense of following the significance of what occurs before us, especially as it relates to significant tools or relationships between characters and community.


A scene in ŚAKRA. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

Where the emotional investment is weak, the thrills are indeed high. Much of this is attributed to Yen’s talent, as well as those of his co-stars who are able to keep up with him. However, it would be a mistake to not acknowledge action director Kenji Tanigaki, who’s worked on numerous Yen projects like Raging Fire (2021), Big Brother (2018), Flash Point (2007) (among others), as well as Snake Eyes (2021) and both Rurouni Kenshin: Final Chapter Part 1 & Part II (2021). In the aforementioned opening sequence, there’s flair, humor, and ferocity. We don’t worry over Qiao Feng’s fate (we’ve just met him) and seeing the confidence with which he fends off a central attacker and their minions is absolutely delightful. Later, when Qiao Feng defends himself against his accusers, it’s less stylish and more brutal, the speed of Yen’s moments conveying the focus and deliberate restraint that Qiao Feng’s maintaining up until this moment. It also serves, perhaps too late into the film, as evidence for why so many respected the warrior monk. Again, this speaks to the gifts of Tanigaki and Yen as they understand that a fight sequence isn’t just about throwing punches, but about communicating character via an arc. How they fight, how they move, who they hit and how: these things tell the audience more than words and much of this second sequence is startling in what it tells us. If only all the things around the fight sequences could live up to what these scenes do.


Donnie Yen as Qiao Feng in ŚAKRA. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

Admittedly, the film may not pull the audience in, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be curious when the continuation drops. Mind you, I suspect only those well-versed in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils will be chomping at the bit for the next part of the story (much in the same way I am for Alienoid: Part 2), but there’s enough stuff being set up that one wonders how the execution will go, if not because Yen is absolutely attached to return, but because to see Yen return to this world in the manner suggested might be reason enough to purchase tickets. The melodrama alone is going to be peak, therefore, one can surmise from the genre, that the wire-work and martial arts will only surpass it. Plus, in a Part Two, there’s a chance that whatever is left confusing from Śakra may be blessedly explained. Fingers-crossed.

In select theaters April 14th, 2023.
Available on digital April 18th, 2023.

For more information, head to the official Well Go USA’s Śakra webpage.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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  1. Indonesian actioner “Legend of Gatotkaca” is out on home video, courtesy of Well Go USA. – Elements of Madness

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