An officer about to arrest a beautiful blind dancer who works in a brothel tells her that if she can win the “Echo Game” he will let her go. She is surrounded by 100 drums. And then, in one of the most extraordinary scenes ever put on film, as the officer tosses stones at the drums, she must listen carefully to replicate the patterns of the sounds through her dance by tossing her long satin sleeves to strike the drums in the same precise rhythms. Her arm sweeps across so that the sleeve extends far enough to pull the officer’s sword from its sheath. And then things really start to heat up.
Director Yimou Zhang (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) is a master of ravishing, rapturous images drenched with glowing, jewel-like colors, unfurling like a rich tapestry. The fight scenes are dramatic, as much a part of telling the story and revealing the characters as the dialogue and the plot. And they are beautiful, like exquisite blood-soaked ballets.
In the brothel, all the girls have taken fancy flower names except the beautiful blind dancer, who is simply named Mei (Ziyi Zhang). A drunken playboy captivated by her tries to rip her clothes off and an officer arrives to arrest them both. That is when Mei shows her prowess in the Echo Game. But she is arrested anyway when she attacks the officer. It seems she is an operative for the rebel House of Flying Daggers. She is about to be tortured when she is rescued by the drunken playboy, who tells her he is on her side. They escape together, followed by the soldiers.
And like all movie journeys, the characters are on a spiritual quest as they travel. Love and loyalty will be tested and lessons will be learned. The confrontations and battle scenes reveal the characters and move the story forward as they dazzle us with breathtaking images and stunning stuntwork. A shower of daggers, a bamboo-forest skirmish that looks like it was choreographed by Cirque du Soleil, and a final encounter in a snow-covered field are striking, moving, and dramatic all at the same time. But the most exquisite image of all is the face of Ziyi Zhang, a brilliant actress, a classically trained dancer, and a fearless combatant. The story may seem unfinished (there is one shot of an advancing army that leaves us wondering what happened next), but ultimately it is as spare and graceful as a calligraphic symbol.
Parents should know that the movie is extremely violent. The fight scenes are beautiful but deadly, with graphic injuries and many deaths. There are sexual references and situations including a scene in a brothel and attempted sexual assault. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of women and of Chinese men and women as strong, brave, and loyal.
Families who see this movie should talk about the difficult choices presented to Mei, Jin, and Leo. How did they decide on what was most important to them?
Families who see this movie will also appreciate Hero by the same director and the award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, both starring Ziyi Zhyang.