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Introduction Wow! Consider the singular beauty of the word “wow.” Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. Imagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses—the sense of wonderment , astonishment, absolute engagement. A “wow” is something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks. Perhaps we are not as jaded as the Variety critic who was asked to review a performance by a pair of Siamese twins who did impersonations, sang, did ballroom and tap dancing, and juggled , all in the course of a ten-minute vaudeville act. All the critic could muster was, “Not bad for an act of this kind,” a phrase that falls far short of a wow. There’s a wow-worthy sequence near the beginning of Zhang Yimou’s 2004 film House of Flying Daggers. A blind courtesan has been brought before a local magistrate who suspects that she may be a member of the secret Flying Daggers organization, and not a brothel entertainer. He demands a performance, challenging her to what he calls the “echo game.” She is brought to the center of a room lined with drums on poles. The crowd gathers on the balcony to watch. The magistrate flings a bean and hits one of the drums. The blind woman thwacks out her long sleeves and slaps them against the same drum. A group of musicians signal their enthusiasm for her perceptual mastery. Then, he throws a second bean and this one ricochets across several drums before dropping to the floor. Again, she flings out her long sleeves and hits the first and then the second drum, followed by grand leaps and twirls. Finally, the magistrate flings the entire bowl of beans, which rain down upon the drums. She listens carefully, waits a beat, and then goes into an elaborate dance, hitting 1 drum after drum, trying to map their trajectory. And then she flings out her sleeves one more time, wraps them around a sword that lies on the table, and uses it to threaten the magistrate, a gesture that leads into a spectacular martial arts sequence. Throughout the scene, we are left seeing but not quite believing. Much of the pleasure comes from the sequence’s larger-than-life qualities—with its wire-work stunts, slow-motion cinematography, and special effects. It is easy to understand why we would be impressed to see such a performance improvised live before our very eyes. It is harder to understand why it holds such wonderment for us in an age where we know every element could be faked, yet the sequence is so spectacularly executed on the screen that it becomes a showstopper. It has its own trajectory: each gesture builds on the one before; each action is just a little more spectacular than what precedes it. The scene is constructed so there is an internal audience —the people lining the balcony—whose oohs and ahs stand in for our own astonished responses toward what we are seeing. Arguably, Yimou makes an aesthetic mistake—putting this sequence so early in the film, he has to struggle to top it in subsequent scenes and never quite overcomes this war of expectations. The scene can be extracted from the film as a set piece and watched with almost equal pleasure. At the same time, Yimou uses the sequence to set the stage for everything that follows. He returns to the “echo game” later in the film, when the magistrate himself is blindfolded and forced to try to duplicate her virtuosity. In the end, we discover that the protagonist is a woman pretending to be blind, that the magistrate and the woman are former suitors, that the performance is a kind of lovemaking, and that they are being forced to pretend that they are strangers even though they yearn to be in each other’s arms. The narrative adds more and more layers to our appreciation of her virtuosity. Yimou amplifies the martial arts film tradition of playing with identity until none of the characters is what they seem and they find themselves actually feeling the emotions they have been feigning. All of this builds toward a tragic ending where these divided loyalties result in the deaths of all of...


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