It’s hard to square martial arts main man Donnie Yen’s increasing entanglement with the Chinese Communist party with the concern for China’s ethnic minorities on show in his first directorial effort for 20 years. Playing Qiao Feng, top dog of the ragamuffin Beggars’ Gang during the Song dynasty, he finds out that his parents were in fact hairy Khitan nomads from the steppes. With the scenes of Khitan refugees being mistreated by callous military goons, you can’t help but think of the plight of the Uyghurs.
Things don’t look good for Qiao when he is framed for four murders in succession: the deputy leader of the gang, his adoptive parents and his old Shaolin master. (The Oscar Wilde misfortune/carelessness adage would seem to apply here.) Forced out by his fellow brigands, the only person who believes he is innocent is chance companion Azhu (Chen Yuqi), a thief he bumps into who is trying to nick a sacred Shaolin scroll. She has a vested interest in backing him: he’s carting her off to legendary healer Xue (Yuen Cheung-yan, brother of Matrix choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) after being wounded in the heist.
It may be an overstuffed melee of high-class wuxia, sweeping romance and hyper-dynamic modern actioner, but Sakra also has a thoughtful streak. Not only is there the commentary about outsiders – Yen perhaps deploying the ancient art of criticising authorities through historical allegory – but there’s also a thread about measuring a man’s inner worth and karma. But it’s hard to practise moral philosophy at the same time as flying frantically around on a wire; the introspection is swiftly undercut by the baroque plotting (adapted from a serialised 1960s novel by Jin Yong). Cue heavy use of mask-enabled identity theft, evil damsels, double crossings, and hilarious instances of kung fu flick script literalism (though the subtitle translation may be to blame): “Today, the world’s heroes are gathered at my Heroes Gathering Manor!”
Unsurprisingly, Yen keeps his end up on the combat front. The showpiece scenes are absolutely top-notch, ransacking every piece of set in range, with the camera lurching on unpredictable diagonals, as kinetic as the performers. Qiao – facing off against his former gang, the Shaolin and all manner of power-usurpers – spews out CGI chi like a human leaf-blower. If only the film had a leaner plot to channel Yen’s prowess.
• Sakra is available on digital platforms on 24 July.