Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Jet Li (Nameless), Tony Leung (Broken Sword), Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow), Zhang Ziyi (Moon), Chen Dao Ming, Donnie Yen (Sky).
four assassins plot to assassinate the King of Qin (who has the potential to unify the warring states into a nation)
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
"Before China was one great country, it was divided into seven warring states. In the Kingdom of Qin there was a ruthless ruler. He had a vision to unite the land to put an end, once and for all, to war. It was an idea soaked in the blood of his enemies."
He was named "Nameless" because he was an orphan and was never named. Without real family he devoted himself intensely to the study of the sword. The King of Qin has summoned him to court because of his skill with the blade. Qin soldiers take him to see the Prime Minister, who praises Nameless for having killed three assassins: Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword. For ten years these three assassins from the Kingdom of Zhao had repeatedly plotted to kill His Majesty. The King had not known a single night of peaceful sleep. But now that Nameless has wiped out the three assassins, His Majesty can sleep without fear.
Nameless now goes to see the King of Qin. He is not be come closer than twenty steps from the King. The award for killing Sky will get 1,000 pieces of gold and authority over 1,000 households. The King asks Nameless how he managed to kill the three assassins? Nameless tells him that Broken Sword and Flying Snow were lovers, but they have not spoken to each other for three years because Flying Snow had spent one night with Sky as lovers. In order to create a rift between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, he had to dispose first of Sky.
Nameless says that he is from Lan Meng where he is the local Prefect. It is his duty to arrest criminals.
Flashback. He learned that Sky was involved in a chess contest at the chess house. Seven Qin court guards came to arrest him. Sky does not want to kill them, so he keeps his knife at the end of a long pole covered with leather. He defeats the first swordsman and then the next two and finally the last four. He is walking away when local Prefect Nameless arrives. He explains to Sky that he is arresting him. For this match Sky uncovers his knife. They fight and Nameless stabs Sky in the abdomen area and down he goes.
Flying Snow and Broken Sword work as a team. Kill one of them and the killer will receive 10,000 pieces of gold and authority over 5,000 households. The King asks how did he overcome the team? He disguised himself as a citizen of Zhao and went there. He had heard a rumor that they were hiding out in a small calligraphy school. Broken Sword was a master of calligraphy. Nameless shows up and tells the head of the school that he wants a large banner created for him of a symbol. And he wants the banner made by Broken Sword.
Nameless goes to see Broken Sword who is with his servant, a pretty, young woman named Moon. He explains he wants an eight foot long banner of the character for "sword". Broken Sword says that will require red ink. He tells Moon to get it from mistress Flying Snow. Moon goes to ask and gets a cup of tea thrown in her face by the mistress. Flying Snow tells Moon to tell Broken Sword to come himself if he wants ink from her.
At this time over 100,000 Qin troops in formation prepare to fire arrows at the calligraphy school complex. They fire thousands of arrows at a time at the school. Arrows starts piercing through the roof and raining down in the classrooms. The head of the school is not impressed with this feat and he tells everyone to go back to class. He sits there with the students as arrows drop all around them. Some of the arrows wind up in the backs of a few of the students.
Mistress Flying Snow and Nameless go outside to slash down the arrows falling on the main classroom. With their swords they smash thousands of arrows. (This is fantasy, of course, but go along with it. Movies are an art form, after all.) The Qin Army retires to figure out what their next move will be. They set up their camp.
Nameless tells Flying Snow and then Broken Sword to meet him at midnight tonight because he has something to show them. At midnight everyone meets in the library. Nameless shows Sky's sword to them. He says Sky told him that the person that really got to him emotionally was Flying Snow and that she would certainly avenge his death. Nameless adds that if they want a duel with him to meet him at the Qin encampment tomorrow. He leaves.
Flying Snow and Broken Sword do not speak to each other. Moon combs Broken Sword's hair. He suddenly rips open her clothes and has sex with her. Flying Snow watches for a little while and then leaves. Broken Sword finishes and tells Moon to leave. He then tells Flying Snow that he knows she saw them. He wanted her to see them. Angered Flying Snow thrusts her sword through a thin partition and into Broken Sword. He says: "We are both very foolish" and falls into unconsciousness.
Flying Snow shows up to fight Nameless. As she prepares for the fight mentally Moon arrives. Flying Snow says that she will not fight with her. But Moon is out to kill her and soon Flying Snow has to change her mind. She is able to strike Moon in the mid-region. Moon pulls out the sword and throws it at Flying Snow, but misses. She goes unconscious.
Now Flying Snow prepares to fight Nameless. Nameless knows that Flying Snow is now emotional and agitated and unable to focus. He defeats her easily. He won by setting Flying Snow against Broken Sword and Moon.
Back to the present. The King of Qin does not believe the story because he knows certain facts about Flying Snow and Broken Sword. He thinks that Nameless and Sky were allies and that Sky lost to Nameless deliberately. In other words, Nameless staged a fight with Sky. And Nameless needed one more accomplice to get him within ten steps of the King of Qin -- close enough to attack the King.
Flashback. So Nevertheless has to tell the King of Qin the truth. At the Library he tells Flying Snow and Broken Sword that he only needs one of them, so they should decide between themselves who it will be. Then he will meet the one chosen at the Qin encampment. He leaves. The couple go together. They sleep on the same bed.
Later Broken Sword tries to kill Flying Snow, but Flying Snow anticipated his move and stabs him with her sword. She wanted to hurt him just enough so he couldn't fight but will still live. Flying Snow tells him that Moon will soon be here to take care of him. She goes to face Nameless.
Moon patches up Broken Sword and they ride to the Qin Encampment to save Flying Snow. In combat Nameless stabs Flying Snow. Broken Sword comes running but he is too late.
Later Broken Sword gives Nameless his sword via Moon. Moon says that Broken Sword thought the sword might help Nameless assassinate the King of Qin. But Nameless leaves the sword on the ground and leaves.
Back to the present. Nameless tells the King of Qin that His Majesty has seen through their plan. He tells the King that he is from Zhao. His family was killed by the Qin Army. He was adopted and brought up in Qin. Then Flying Snow, Moon and Broken Sword show up. Nameless explains that he became so skilled with a sword that he can make his sword go through a body without hitting a vital organ. Sky is recovering.
Flashback. Broken Sword tells Nameless that the King of Qin must not be killed. Flying Snow says that she will help Nameless, but she asks that he help her fight Broken Sword. He does so and she stabs Broken Sword. Moon tries to kill Flying Snow, but Broken Sword tells her to stop fighting. She's no match for Flying Snow. Broken Sword tells Flying Snow that he can still stop her from helping Nameless kill the King of Qin. She responds: "In that case, I'll have to kill you."
Nameless wonders why Broken Sword does not want the King of Qin assassinated. Broken Sword tells him that when he met Flying Snow he was a wanderer with no home of his own. Flying Snow was the daughter of the great General Zhao Zhen, who lost his life in a battle against Qin. She wanted vengeance on the King of Qin. Broken Sword wanted to help her and did so. Flying Snow and Broken Sword stormed the palace. They killed 3,000 guards to get to the King of Qin. Broken Sword goes in to kill the King. The King awaits him, so Broken Sword rushes him. They sword fight. Broken Sword cuts the neck of the King to show him that he could have killed him.
Broken Sword says he learned from the art of calligraphy that the King of Qin should not be killed. Because he did not kill the King, Flying Snow turned her back on him. He tells Nameless not to assassinate the King. He leaves Nameless with two words. He draws the characters in the sand. The two words are: "our land". Only the King of Qin can bring unity to China and stop the bloodshed of constant wars.
Back to the present. The King is amazed to hear that Broken Sword actually understood exactly what the King is trying to do. But Nameless will still kill the King. So the King turns his back to Nameless. The archers push their way up to the court to ready themselves to shoot the assassin if necessary.
The King looks at the banner that Broken Sword made for Nameless. He says the message on the banner is that the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether and the warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists.
Nameless flies at the King of Qin and hits him in the back, but not with the blade. He hits the King with the butt end of the sword handle. He tells the King: "A dead man begs you never to forget the ultimate ideal for a warrior." Nameless leaves. The archers make way for him.
Flying Snow cries. She thinks that Nameless must have given up willingly the idea of killing the King of Qin. She asks Broken Sword what did he say to Nameless? Two words: "our land". Flying Snow is mad at Broken Sword. She says: "You have killed Nameless, betrayed Sky and destroyed Zhao." She insists that they fight. He tells her he loves her. She doesn't believe him. She comes at him with her sword and at the last second he drops his sword and she stabs him. She asks him why did he not defend himself? He says: "So you would finally believe me." He dies in a kneeling position with the sword still lodged in his mid-riff. She cries and screams out loud.
Moon comes riding up. Flying Snow tells Broken Sword that there will be no more more struggle and that she will take him home. She kneels behind him and grabs the sword. She pushes the sword until the hilt hits his chest. The sword goes into Flying Snow's body killing her. Moon sees what happened, cries and screams.
Back with the King of Qin, his advisers demand that he execute the assassin Nameless. The King orders the execution. The archers shoot thousands of arrows at Nameless, killing him. They bury him.
The nameless warrior was executed as an
assassin, but buried as a hero. The King of Qin went on to conquer all of
the six kingdoms and unite the country. He completed the Great Wall to
protect his subjects. This was more than 2,000 years ago. But even
now when the people speak of China, they call it: "our land".
The movie makes use of the newest trend in the martial arts: flying martial arts combatants.
The movie is beautifully filmed and the actors are good, but I don't know how much history there is here. Many assassination attempts were made on the emperor and he grew very paranoid (obviously, with reason). But a movie about four assassins with the accent on action does not reveal much history.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
See the Emperor and the Assassin (1991).
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