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Wuxia Adaptions: Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils

Think only Hollywood shows big movies during the holiday season? The Lunar New Year season is when big movies are shown in the East. Among these is Donnie Yen’s Sakra, the first of a cinematic multiverse based on the classic Wuxia novel The Demi-Gods & The Semi-Devils by Jin Yong (Louis Cha). This is a noteworthy adaptation, as it has been nearly 30 years since the previous movie adaptation! While there are also six different television drama adaptations of this novel since the 1980’s, there are only three previous movie adaptations due to the complexities, involving multiple characters and subplots spread over five volumes. In anticipation of Sakra, we will go over the three previous movie adaptations that had different attempts to adapt this classic novel. With the novel being so complicated, each movie has a different plot from one another that is still complicated!
While the Shaw Bros. studio is famous in the West for Kung Fu films such as The 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Five Venoms, they are famous for their Wuxia films in the East. Given the popularity of Jin Yong novels, it is no surprise that they adapted several of his novels into movies, including The Demi-Gods & The Semi-Devils. Released in 1977, The Battle Wizard focuses solely on the early adventures of Duan Yu, one of the three main characters of the original novel. Portrayed by Danny Lee of 1989’s The Killer (directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat) Duan Yu is a prince of the Dali Kingdom who encounters various beauties, eccentric characters, and learns a powerful martial art despite wanting otherwise. If the original novel is famous for featuring many powerful fighters with powerful martial arts skills, this movie is infamous for having many over-the-top (albeit low budget) special effects and even creature designs to highlight the more fantastical elements of the novel. Examples include fights involving a giant snake (made of rubber) and a gorilla (clearly a man in a suit). Even more surprising is that the movie is only 70 minutes long, in contrast to the usual 80-90 minutes duration of typical Shaw Bros. movies. The director clearly was not aiming for faithfulness to the novel, but the fun factors make up for it.
Released in the same year as the 1982 Hong Kong TVB series adaptation, Demi-Gods & Semi-Devils (AKA Dragon Story) features mostly the same cast as the aforementioned TVB series. Unlike Wizard, this movie attempts to fit all five volumes into one movie with a runtime of 90 minutes! Norman Tsui (of 1983’s Duel to the Death and The Bastard Swordsman fame) portrays Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen’s character in Sakra) here, who ironically was in Wizard as one of the emperor’s henchmen! While Hong Kong films of the golden era (1970’s-1990’s) are known for being fast paced, this movie takes it to a new level. Characters come and go, major events and fights happen without reason, and the film even ends abruptly. Despite being more faithful to the novel with a more recognizable cast, this one is only recommended for fans of the novel.

Released during the wire-fu craze of early 1990’s Hong Kong cinema, 1994’s The Dragon Chronicles - The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain focuses on three female leads who are noteworthy for Wuxia roles: Brigitte Lin (1992’s Swordsman II), Sharla Cheung (1993’s The Kung Fu Cult Master, and Gong Li (2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower). This is a much more loose adaptation of the novel, with only one main character from the novel (Xu Zhu) appearing here. Xu Zhu is a Buddhist monk whose interaction with the three leads is the focus of this movie. The irony of this movie is that he is not even the main character here! This movie attempts to explore the complicated Buddhist symbolisms from the novel, but many things get lost in the transition to the big screen. Not only is this the third movie adaptation of the novel; this is the third time that Norman Tsui appears in an adaptation! This time, he appears as the antagonist of the movie. While featuring an all star cast, this movie is not well regarded by fans of the novel or even Wuxia fans in general.

With Sakra featuring Donnie Yen, it was only a matter of time until a Western release was announced (as of writing this, we have a tentative Western release for April). While there were multiple movie adaptations of this novel, those came during the Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema and the Wire-Fu boom. With release of The New Kung Fu Cult Master in 2022 (based on Jin Yong’s Heaven Sword & Dragon Saber) and this new movie, perhaps now is the time for the revival of Wuxia films to redefine the genre. Donnie Yen has high hopes for this turning into a multimedia franchise, and we all have high hopes for it as well. Let us know in the comments if you have seen any of the previous adaptations or plan to watch Sakra!

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By B. Chansy
Immortal Staff
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