Ijah’s Note: There are specific personal reasons why I am drawn to this movie. See if you can figure it out.
NOTE: This spoiler was written by David Luke Gazoul, author of “Artrex, Dark Hero” available at http://www.iuniverse.com who says…”This movie is extraordinary! If you are at all a martial arts enthusiast (like me) or in any way interested in Asian culture and story-telling, I recommend you skip the spoiler and go see this movie right away! You won’t regret it!”
The movie opens with a brief explanation of China’s history saying that the land now known as China was once divided into seven different kingdoms that warred with each other constantly. It took one man to conquer all the kingdoms and unite the land into what is now China. The opening captions also introduce the theme of the movie saying “people die for all sorts of reasons, for friendship, for love, for an ideal…and people kill for these same reasons also.”
Next we go to a scene in which a man is being brought to the palace of the Qin kingdom to meet the King of Qin. This King (Daoming Chen) is never referred to as anything other than the King or Your Majesty. The man being brought to see the King (Jet Li) is only referred to as Nameless. Nameless is stripped naked to be searched for weapons of any kind and informed to remain 100 paces from the King at all times or he will be killed immediately.
It is then announced that Nameless is being honored and rewarded for killing three assassins from the kingdom of Zhao. These assassins are named Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Nameless claims he is a minor law-enforcement officer from Qin and presents a silver spear-head, it is recognized as the weapon of Sky. Nameless claims he killed Sky in a one-on-one duel. The King is amazed because Sky was such a lethal fighter. The king sets aside the spear and orders the official reward to be granted.
For killing Sky, Nameless is rewarded with a lot of gold, a lot of land and is allowed to advance to within 20 paces of the King to have a drink with him. The King asks Nameless to explain how he defeated Sky.
We flashback to a chess hall where some of the Royal Guards from Qin attempt to arrest Sky. Sky beats them all, mangling their swords and telling them to go away. As he is about to walk out, Nameless appears and announces he is there to arrest Sky. Sky does not believe him, feeling confident from his recent victory. The two fight (and this fight was extremely fast and amazing to watch!) and eventually find that they are evenly matched. They stop fighting and Nameless pays an blind man to play music while they fight. While the music is playing, Sky and Nameless imagine the fight in their minds, this goes on until the strings on the harp-like instrument break and the two fighters open their eyes back to reality. Nameless launches into Sky fast enough to cut through Sky’s spear and stab him. The royal guards witness all of this.
Back in the present, Nameless then presents two swords to the king, they are the weapons of Flying Snow and Broken Sword. The King declares that Flying Snow and Broken Sword tried to kill him 3 years ago. They hacked their way through entire armies of his men to get to him–but their attempt failed and they escaped. Since then, the King has kept all people 100 paces away from him and he has never taken off his armor or known a single night of peaceful sleep. With the proof of their deaths in front of him, the King orders the official reward for Nameless.
For killing Broken Sword and Flying Snow, Nameless is rewarded with even more gold, more lands and is allowed to advance to within 10 paces of the King to have a drink with him. The King asks how did Nameless kill them both. Nameless explains that the two were lovers but the couple had a falling out 3 years ago. Nameless says he used their troubled relationship to drive them apart.
We then have another flashback to a calligraphy school in the lands of Zhao. Broken Sword is a calligraphy master. Flying Snow is in the scene as well. Also, a young woman named Moon (Zhang Ziyi) is there, she is Broken Sword’s pupil. Nameless hires Broken Sword to draw a scroll eight feet tall and four feet wide with a single character on it: the Chinese word for sword. But Nameless explains that (due to the complexities of Chinese language) there are 19 variations for writing the word “sword.” Nameless asks for the 20th variation.
We have a brief cut back to the king who is perturbed that the languages have gotten so complex. He proclaims that his ideal is to unite the lands and people as one country and thus have only one language, simplifying everything in unity. Nameless explains that sword play is much like calligraphy and he knew if he could have an example of Broken Sword’s calligraphy, he would learn the secret to defeating his sword-fighting ability. The scroll is then revealed and hung up in display behind the King. The King looks at it and asks Nameless to continue.
Back to the calligraphy school, while Broken Sword is working on the scroll, the Archers of Qin attack. This is a visually spectacular scene as millions of arrows are fired at the school. Flying Snow and Nameless look at each other and decided to stop the arrows (which are piercing through the walls and killing students at random). Flying Snow and Nameless leap out on to the roof and begin deflecting arrows to save the school. Though many have already died, they stop any further arrows from harming anyone. The legendary Archers of Qin then retreat and make camp, preparing to attack again in the morning.
Nameless then reveals to them that he is a soldier of Qin and challenges them both to a duel. He takes the scroll that he has paid for and says if they accept his challenge to meet him at the army encampment the next day. That night Nameless meditates on the scroll. Broken Sword (knowing the scroll will reveal his weakness to Nameless) makes love to Moon (knowing that Flying Snow is watching) and then gets killed by Flying Snow for his betrayal. Moon tries to avenge her master but is killed by Flying Snow in another beautifully colorful fight scene amongst a shower of yellow leaves. The next day at the army camp, Nameless tells the soldiers to back off so he can have his fight with Flying Snow. Nameless and Flying Snow fight, but she is so emotionally distraught by all that has happened that he easily wins. The soldiers witness Nameless killing Flying Snow.
We cut back to the throne room. There are these strange torches between Nameless and the King that flicker in perfect unison. The king then announces that he does not believe what Nameless has said. He does not believe that Broken Sword and Flying Snow were that emotionally immature. The King goes on about his suspicions. Looking paranoid, the King suspects that Nameless was working with the assassins all along. This was all a plot to put Nameless within 10 paces of the throne and kill the King with some awesome technique that Nameless must have. He suspects that Broken Sword and Flying Snow were willing to die for this since they tried to kill him before.
We then have a kind of flashback (i.e. this is not what happened, this is what the King thinks the truth is) of Nameless presenting himself to Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Nameless then displays a phenomenal technique that can kill everyone and everything within 10 paces of him, saying he used this technique to kill Sky. Nameless says he can use this to kill the King but the only way to get close enough is to collect the reward for killing them both. Nameless says he only has to kill one of them in front of the soldiers and they will believe his claim that he killed them both. Broken Sword and Flying Snow must decide which one of them will die by his sword. The next day Broken Sword and Flying Snow are walking towards the camp when Broken Sword attempts to injure Flying Snow. She is faster than him (suspecting he would try this) and she injures him instead, saying she is going to die and wants only for him to continue living. He is now too injured to stop her and so they have a tearful farewell. Flying Snow then goes to the camp, fights Nameless, and dies. Nameless then shows up at a lake where Broken Sword is mourning Flying Snow. Out of honor, Broken Sword attacks Nameless, they fly over the lake as they fight. They are evenly matched, but Broken Sword stops fighting, gives Nameless his sword and allows Nameless to leave.
We cut back to the throne room as the King finishes his interpretation of what really happened. The flames flicker in unison again. Nameless says “your majesty is very perceptive.” The King says he knew because the movement of the flames is a warning of murderous intent. The King now realizes he is right and the man sitting 10 paces from him could kill him at any moment. The King asks who Nameless really is. Nameless says that he is an orphan from Zhao whose family was slaughtered by the armies of Qin. He perfected his sword technique throughout his life in order to one day avenge his family. Nameless then tells the King what really happened.
We now have a flashback of the truth! Nameless displays his technique for killing anyone within 10 paces and also shows that he can use this technique to miss every vital organ but still make the stab seem fatale…he did this to Sky. The truth is that Sky still lives! But the royal guards will think (and report) that Sky is dead. He now only needs to perform this move on the two of them in public, they won’t die and Nameless will have his opportunity to kill the King. Flying Snow agrees to this. But Broken Sword refuses!
The King is shocked to hear this but it is the truth. Broken Sword does not want the King to die for reasons that he does not explain. Flying Snow attacks Broken Sword, she accuses him of ruining the opportunity they had to kill the King 3 years ago, she won’t let him ruin this plan as well. Nameless intervenes in the fight enough to distract Broken Sword so that Flying Snow can wound him. With Broken Sword wounded, Moon attacks Nameless but it is obvious that Nameless is superior so Broken Sword tells her to stop. The next day, Nameless uses his technique to apparently “kill” Flying Snow in front of the soldiers.
The day after all that, Broken Sword confronts Nameless and confirms that Flying Snow is alright. Broken Sword gives Nameless his weapon to make it look like both Broken Sword and Flying Snow are dead so the plan will work…but he still begs Nameless not to kill the King. Nameless asks why and Broken Sword writes two words in the sand…and walks away.
Somewhere in all this (sorry, I don’t remember where), Flying Snow arranges for a spy to watch over Nameless. She asks that this Old Man wave a red flag outside the palace if the assassination is successful, a yellow one if the assassination fails. She needs to know, because her family was killed by the Qin armies as well. She believes she cannot die in peace unless she knows the King is dead.
We then go back to the throne room and the King asks Nameless what two words Broken Sword wrote. Nameless answers “our land.” The King then asks how Nameless planned to kill him without a sword. Nameless answers “by taking yours.” The King realizes there is nothing else he can do…so he takes his sword out and throws it to Nameless. The sword stabs into the floor between him. But then the King tells Nameless about the attempt on his life 3 years ago.
This is the last flashback! We see Broken Sword and Flying Snow fight their way into the palace and kill hundreds of soldiers to get to the throne room. There Broken Sword fights the King in the throne room while Flying Snow holds off the guards to keep anyone from helping the King. The King turns out to be quite a fighter but Broken Sword wins none-the-less. However, in this moment, Broken Sword sees something in the Kings stare and decides to spare him, Flying Snow is shocked by this. They make their escape and we assume their relationship was never the same again.
Back in the throne room, the archers have gathered in the doorway to kill Nameless but the King knows they cannot stop Nameless. The King stands up and turns his back to Nameless, saying he is ready to die because he realizes why Broken sword did not kill him…because Broken Sword understood the King’s goal: to unite all Kingdoms “under heaven” and end all the wars and suffering in all the lands. The King says he can die happy, knowing that someone like Broken Sword could understand his vision, thus there is hope that others will make it happen in the future. The King stares at the scroll that Broken Sword wrote and further realizes that the ultimate ideal of swordsmanship is to have no sword.
Nameless then uses his technique, flies through the air…and hits the King in the back with the blunt end of the sword’s hilt. Nameless tells the King to remember this lesson: that a ruler must know when to use a sword and when to lay it down. A ruler must know that ideal of swordsmanship is to make peace. Nameless then walks out of the throne room. The guards surround Nameless every step of the way but they do not attack him.
Outside the palace, the Old Man that Flying Snow recruited as a spy comes running out waving a yellow flag. Flying Snow turns to Broken Sword and accuses him of ruining another assassination. She demands to know what he said to Nameless. Broken Sword tells her it was just two words: “our land.” Flying Snow doesn’t understand what this means, she attacks Broken Sword and they fight. Finally Broken Sword invites her to attack, when she does, he deliberately drops his sword! She stabs him through the heart and cries wondering why he didn’t block her. She wraps her arms around him from behind, wanting to be with her lover forever. She pushes the sword through both of them. They both die.
Back at the palace, the soldiers still don’t attack Nameless because they are waiting for the King’s orders. The King stares after Nameless with admiration but the King’s advisors surround him demanding that he order Nameless to be executed. Nameless tried to kill the King, therefore he must be made an example of so that no one else will try this and the King will be safe. The King knows they are right but he does not want to do it. The advisors shout in unison “Your Majesty, execute him!” several times. Nameless reaches the courtyard gates and turns around to face the King. The King silently, reluctantly gives the order and the archers launch a huge volley of arrows at Nameless (who does not try to deflect the arrows) which obviously kills him.
We see a body being carried in a royal funeral as narrative captions explain that the Nameless Hero was executed as an assassin but buried as an honored hero. The King of Qin eventually did conquer all the kingdoms and unite them under his rule, he then went on to oversee the building of the Great Wall of China. And as final note on the screen ending the film, the following is written:
To this day all the people of China refer to their country as…Our Land.