November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Much of Flying Daggers‘ ballets come to pass on rural landscapes: the verdant bamboo forests of China, the autumnal fields of Ukraine. But what jump-starts the martial-arts action is a dance sequence set inside the film’s Tang dynasty brothel, the Peony Pavilion. Challenged to an ”echo game” by a local constable (Andy Lau), blind courtesan Mei (Ziyi Zhang) uses her coral-colored sashes as fluid extensions of her arms and imitates his movements on a circle of drums. ”I’ve always wanted to film a traditional Chinese dance,” says director Zhang Yimou, who modeled the scene after a Tang dynasty painting of elaborately shod women dancing on drums. ”After two weeks of rehearsal, I didn’t like the look of the drums on the ground, so I lifted them off the floor and added [Mei’s] long sleeves in place of fans.” The conventional Chinese dress features sleeves that are no more than three meters long, but Yimou wanted to make the scene more dramatic. ”We used sleeves that were four to five meters long,” the director says.”This dance has not been carried down through tradition, so we wanted to re-create it.But I pushed it in a new direction.”

”I wanted to showcase the prosperity of the Tang dynasty,” says production designer Huo Tingxiao, who purposely infused his elaborately conceived set with rich and vivid colors. And the peony itself was a theme: The crew hand-carved likenesses of the lush flower into the wooden window frames and poles. They also painted 18 intricate butterflies onto the set’s floor. The entire pavilion took two months to design and another two to three months for the crew to build.

Even though the classically trained actress has studied dance since the age of 11 (she’s a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy), she still had to prepare for two months before filming the echo-game sequence. The most challenging part of the scene, which took 20 days to film, ”was the extending of the sleeves and then retracting them,” says Yimou. (Ziyi’s elaborate costume, done by Academy Award-winning designer Emi Wada, came complete with custom-created sleeves.) ”That took a lot of practice.”

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