The King of Qin, leader of one of several warring kingdoms before China became a unified nation, wants an end to war, and the only way he sees to accomplish this is by subjugating all the other kingdoms at the tip of a sword. Because of this, he lives in constant fear for his life. He dwells in an empty palace so that assassins cannot sneak up on him, and visitors to the court must remain 100 paces away unless they are summoned closer due to some heroic accomplishment.
The king hears about a Nameless Hero who has just vanquished the three most feared assassins in the divided kingdom: Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. To celebrate and honor this skilled warrior, the king has him brought to his palace. Nameless Hero recounts the story of how he was able to defeat the three adept fighters. But is that how it actually happened? The suspicious king proceeds to set forth what he believes to be the real story. Then the mystery deepens as a third telling of the tale emerges. The lives of both Nameless Hero and the king—not to mention the future of China—depend on which version is true and what will happen next.
All of the characters are willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good, be it romantic love or a political cause. Honor is highly esteemed among these warriors. The king, hearing that there are 20 different ways to render the word “sword” in Chinese, says, “So many ways we can communicate and still not understand each other.” Another man asks, “Is the sword the only answer?” Twice, warriors have the chance to kill an opponent but show mercy at great personal cost.
A grieving woman longs to be reunited with her fallen partner in the spiritual realm, so she commits suicide to join him. The king is told that “heaven has sent a great warrior to vanquish the assassins.” A woman says, “When I look down from heaven, I want to be proud of you.” The influence of Eastern philosophy appears throughout the film, making it hard to imagine that the eternity they speak of is grounded in Christian faith.
Broken Sword pushes Moon, his pretty apprentice, to the floor and rips open her gown (we see only her face and shoulders) before having intercourse with her for the purpose of making his beloved, Flying Snow, jealous. (He knows she’s watching from outside the room.) There’s heavy breathing, moaning and sexual motions edited to avoid an R rating. Beyond its sexual nature, this is a loveless, vindictive act. Moon is devoted to her master, yet used and cast off as soon as Broken Sword has made his point to Flying Snow. It’s unclear whether Broken Sword and Flying Snow are married (they are referred to as “lovers”), but they share a bed, implying a sexual relationship. Elsewhere, there is a brief glimpse of a man’s buttocks as he changes clothes. And there's a reference to an affair between Sky and Flying Snow.
Despite frequent flurries of violence, Hero spills blood sparingly. In one scene a single drop appears on the blade of a sword after it has found its mark. And blood pools on the floor when a man is run through from behind. But most of the film's brutal swordplay inexplicably fails to draw blood even when blades dig deep into bodies. Some viewers might appreciate this lack of gore, but it raises the question of whether bloodless, operatic brutality packaged as a glamorous ballet is better or worse than gritty, unattractive displays.
We learn that Nameless Hero has the ability to skewer a person with a surgical precision that lets him avoid hitting any vital organs—a technique that leaves onlookers convinced the prey is dead, though recovery is assured. A grief-stricken woman "romantically" drapes herself over the shoulders of her dead lover and drives the sword lodged in him deeper so that it exits his back and impales her as well.
In addition to highly stylized, gravity-defying hand-to-hand combat with swords, knives and spears, deaths occur when a massive army launches impossible swarms of arrows into a calligraphy school. Students are hit and slump over. Later, a man becomes a pin cushion riddled with arrows (implied) when a firing squad unleashes its fury on him. The assassins carve their way through a group of soldiers. An assassin spares the king’s life, but leaves a mild cut on his neck.
At the beginning of Hero we read, “In any war there are heroes on both sides,” and in this film there are no archetypal bad guys. One could argue that pitting an iron-fisted king against a group of assassins doesn’t provide us with a truly noble champion either, but everyone is trying to do the right and honorable thing as they see it. We’re left to ponder whether the end justifies the means in some cases. It is a complex story where mixed motives run headlong into notions of honor and vengeance.
It is also a stunningly beautiful movie with jaw-dropping photography and dazzling martial arts choreography. It wears the intricacy of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the spectacular cinematography of his Ran. Perhaps director Zhang Yimou is taking up the mantle left by the Japanese master when he died in 1998, displaying a wonderful eye for color and symbolism. For example, in the multiple tellings of the same story, the characters' costumes go from red (imagination) to blue (perceived reality) to white (truth). In the final flashback the costumes are green suggesting enlightenment and peace.
An interesting bit of trivia: In one scene a character, determined to end the bloodshed, writes in the sand the words “our land”—or so the subtitles state. In fact, he writes “all under heaven,” which was ancient China’s name for itself, and indeed this story recounts in fantastical form how seven warring kingdoms came to be united under one emperor, the man who would build the Great Wall to protect all Chinese from outside barbarians.
It’s worth noting that Quentin Tarantino (director of blood-fests such as Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs) fell in love with this film and convinced Miramax to distribute it in North America. Fortunately it isn’t anywhere near as visceral as Tarantino’s own work, and it introduces mature, morally complex themes Western audiences aren’t often challenged to consider. But while Zhang is masterful at filling his canvas with dazzling images; he also asks audiences to embrace balletic brutality, romantic notions of suicide and a scene of sexual cruelty.