The movie opens with a brief history saying that China was once divided into seven 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: "people die for all sorts of reasons, for friendship, for love, for an ideal...and people kill for these same reasons also."
A nameless man (Jet Li
) is brought to meet the king of Qin (Daoming Chen
) in his palace. Nameless is stripped naked, searched for weapons, and informed that he must remain 100 paces from the king at all times or he will be killed immediately.
It is announced that Nameless is being honored 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 says he is a minor law-enforcement officer from Qin and presents a silver spear-head, which 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: a lot of gold, a lot of land, and the right to approach within 20 paces of the king to have a drink with him. The king asks Nameless to explain how he defeated Sky.
We flash back to a chess hall where 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 have a fight (which is extremely fast and amazing to watch!) and find that they are evenly matched. 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 presents two swords to the king: 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 more gold, more lands, and the right to approach within 10 paces of the king to have a drink with him. The king asks how Nameless killed the assassins. 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.
In a flashback to a calligraphy school in the land of Zhao, everyone wears red. Broken Sword is a calligraphy master. Flying Snow is in the scene as well. Also at the school is a young woman named Moon (Ziyi Zhang
), Broken Sword's servant. 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 written language) there are 19 ways to write the word "sword." Nameless asks for the 20th variation.
We cut briefly 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 establish a single written language. 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 revealed and displayed behind the king. The king looks at it and asks Nameless to continue.
At 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 decide to stop the arrows, which are piercing the walls and killing students. Flying Snow and Nameless leap on to the roof and deflect the rain of arrows to save the school. Though many have already died, they stop any further arrows from harming anyone. The legendary archers of Qin retreat and make camp, preparing to attack again in the morning.
Nameless reveals to Broken Sword and Flying Snow 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 is 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 strange torches between Nameless and the king that flicker in perfect unison. The king 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 so he can 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.
In the scenes depicting the king's version of the story, everyone wears blue. Nameless presents himself to Broken Sword and Flying Snow. He displays a phenomenal technique that can kill everyone and everything within 10 paces of him, saying he used this technique to kill Sky. Nameless explains he can use this to kill the king but the only way to get close enough is to collect the reward for killing Broken Sword and Flying Snow. 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 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 happened between Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. 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, realizing that the man sitting 10 paces from him could kill him at any moment, 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! In scenes with actors clothed in white, 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 fatal; he did this to Sky. The truth is that Sky still lives! But the royal guards will think (and report) that Sky is dead. Nameless only needs to perform this move on Broken Sword and Flying Snow in public; they won't die and Nameless will have his opportunity to kill the king. Flying Snow agrees, 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, and 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 a better fighter, 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 all right. 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. 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, or 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.
Back in the throne room, 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 them. Then the king tells Nameless about the attempt on his life 3 years ago.
In the last flashback, 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 king's 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 that 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, and 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 uses his deadly technique, flies through the air...and hits the king in the back with 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 the goal 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 order. The king stares after Nameless with admiration, but his advisers demand that he have Nameless 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 advisers 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 them. He is killed.
A body is carried as if in a royal funeral; 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 went on to oversee the building of the Great Wall of China. On the closing screen, the following is written:
To this day all the people of China refer to their country as...Our Land.