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Hero ( ) is a 2002 Chinese wuxia film, directed by Zhang Yimou with music by Tan Dun. Starring Jet Li as the nameless protagonist, the movie is loosely based on the legendary Jing Ke.

A group of assassins: Flying Snow (飛雪) (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (殘劍) (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), and Long Sky (長空) (Donnie Yen), have sworn to kill the King of Qin (秦王) (Chen Daoming), and Nameless (無名) (Jet Li) comes to the royal capital to claim the reward offered for their defeat. The movie tells the story of his conversation with the King of Qin, and through a series of flashbacks depicts the journey he took to save the country from collapse. Zhang Ziyi stars as Broken Sword's servant Moon (如月).

Hero was first released in China on October 24, 2002. At that time, it was both the most expensive and the highest-grossing motion picture in Chinese film history. Miramax Films owned the American market distribution rights, but delayed the release of the film for nearly two years. It was finally presented by Quentin Tarantino to American theaters on August 27, 2004.


In ancient China during the Warring States, the nameless prefect of a small jurisdiction (Jet Li) arrives at the King of Qin's palace. Following a meticulous search for weapons, he is granted an audience with the King (Chen Daoming), who, following an assassination attempt, lives alone in his palace, always wearing his battle armor and forbidding visitors from coming within 100 paces of his throne. As Nameless kneels before the Emperor, he displays the weapons of legendary assassins Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen). The Emperor, impressed with Nameless having killed three of his most feared enemies, invites him to sit within ten paces of his throne and tell his story.

Nameless recalls approaching Sky at a Weiqi parlor (known in the West as the game of Go) where, in front of witnesses, he dueled and slew the assassin. After retrieving Sky's spear, Nameless traveled to a small calligraphy school in the enemy state of Zhao. In this school Flying Snow and Broken Sword were living as lovers, as Nameless suspected. After commissioning a scroll from Broken Sword for the word "Sword," Nameless informed both Sword and Snow of Sky's death and of Sky's dying wish for Snow, his illicit mistress, to avenge him. In retaliation, the heartbroken Sword had sex with his servant, Moon (Zhang Ziyi), right before Snow's eyes, to make her suffer as he had. In a fit of silent rage, Snow killed Sword, which prompted Moon to try to avenge her Master by killing Snow. Snow at first refused to fight Moon; however, after narrowly losing several hairs to Moon's blades, she decided that killing Moon would be exactly what Moon wanted. She allowed Moon to accidentally impale herself on her blade. Before Moon died, however, she insightfully remarked that Snow was very "stupid" for losing her temper and killing Sword. The next day, her focus disrupted by the deaths of her close ones, Snow dueled and was killed by Nameless. Nameless' stories are illustrated by scenes dominated by Red costuming and Yellow scenery.

As the tale concludes, the King expresses disbelief at Nameless's story based on his knowledge of Broken Sword's and Flying Snow's honorable character, which he knows from having faced them three years before. He accuses Nameless of having staged the duel with Sky, who surrendered his life to give Nameless the opportunity to enter the palace. The King theorizes that Nameless traveled to the calligraphy school and asked Sword and Snow to be publicly defeated by him, surrendering their weapons and allowing Nameless to further gain the King's trust in order to assassinate him. Snow and Sword spent a final night together before meeting Nameless, when Snow wounded Sword and offered herself to Nameless as the sacrifice. Nameless killed her before a group of Qin soldiers acting as witnesses and, while preparing Sky and Snow's weapons for the palace visit, was approached by Moon who offered Sword's weapon to him, declaring that the two lovers' swords, like their souls, should never be apart. Concluding his tale, the King theorizes that the brave and loyal assassins would only have invested their lives in an unstoppable assassination attempt that would require the assassin to be within ten paces. The King's suppositions are illustrated using cinematography dominated by Blue.

Nameless admits to being a man of the Kingdom of Zhao whose family was killed by the Qin army and describes his unstoppable technique, the ability to strike precisely within a distance of ten paces. Nameless confesses that he collaborated with Sky and used this technique in the duel at the Go parlor and proposed it to Snow and Sword at the calligraphy school. During their discussions, however, Sword expressed reservations about assassinating the Emperor, much to the chagrin of Snow, who harbors the deepest vengeance. Snow agreed to fake her death at Nameless's hands, and wounded Sword to prevent him from interfering. The next day in front of Qin soldiers, Nameless dueled Snow, with Nameless using his technique to inflict a wound that bypassed her vital organs while appearing to kill her. As Nameless set off for the Emperor's palace, Broken Sword approached him and told the story of how he met Snow, the daughter of a Zhao general killed by Qin forces, and how they fought their way to the King of Qin's palace in an assassination attempt three years before. Sword explains, however, that despite being a man of Zhao, he came to realize that killing the King would plunge fragmented China into further war and shatter all hopes for the universal peace that would follow the King of Qin's final unification of China and his establishment of a new Chinese Empire. When Nameless refuses to put aside his plan, Sword writes "All Under Heaven" (translated into "Our Land" in the international version) in the sand and asks him to reconsider. These scenes use white costuming – green for Sword's recollections – and cinematography dominated by pale colours.

The King of Qin, deeply moved by the tale and Sword's understanding of his true intentions, throws his sword to Nameless and turns his back on the assassin. Unafraid of death, he examines Broken Sword's scroll hanging behind his throne and realizes that the scroll explains the ideal warrior, who paradoxically should have no desire to kill. As Nameless realizes the wisdom of these words, he leaves the King alive, and marches from the palace and down the steps the courtyard. Snow, after witnessing the yellow flag raised by her returning servant, concludes correctly that Sword had convinced Nameless to forego the assassination. She denounces Sword as a traitor and attacks him. Sword allows her to slay him in hopes that she will understand his love for her, as well as his hopes for true peace for all. Shocked by Sword's non-violence, Snow loses all her hatred for Sword and is consumed by grief at his death. Wanting to join her lover in death, she impales herself on the sword she had used to kill Sword. At the palace, Nameless exits into the courtyard and stands at the locked perimeter doors, awaiting his fate while the King, to set an example and uphold his laws, reluctantly orders Nameless's execution, striking him down in a hail of arrows. As Nameless receives a hero's burial, the closing text declares that the King of Qin united the Middle Kingdom under one rule, unifying the Chinese language, its weights and measures system, completing the Great Wall of China and ushering in the Qin Dynasty of a unified China. The King of Qin became Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China.


Jet Li - Nameless Soldier
An unknown prefect of a small province, Nameless is orphaned at an early age by the Emperor's invading forces. Forged into a master swordsman over years of training, Nameless possesses the singular technique "Death at Ten Paces" allowing him to strike precisely within that distance. The degree of control is such that it allows him to perform both an unstoppable lethal attack and to inflict apparently fatal but nonlethal injuries. He is the primary conspirator behind the elaborate plan to assassinate the King, but ultimately decides that China's unification and peace are more important than vengeance. Hero is the first Jet Li movie made in mainland China in the more than 20 years since his debut as a leading actor, in Shaolin Temple in 1982.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – Broken Sword
Broken Sword and Flying Snow are the only assassins to ever infiltrate the King's palace, killing hundreds of his personal guard and very nearly the King himself before halting his attack at the last moment. Sword views the unification of China and the possibility of peace over his personal objectives, views that put him at odds with his lover, Flying Snow. Of all the assassins, he is the only one who Nameless considers to be his equal in terms of swordsmanship.

Maggie Cheung – Flying Snow
A skilled assassin, Flying Snow is Broken Sword's lover and his near equal as a swordsman. The daughter of a prominent Zhao general who fell in battle against the King, Snow swears revenge against the King, drafting Broken Sword to her cause. Unlike Broken Sword, she harbors the deepest grudge against the King.

Chen Daoming – King of Qin
An ambitious leader who desires to become the first Emperor of China, the King of Qin. Following an assassination attempt, he withdraws into his reinforced palace, which he vacates of all but his most trusted advisors, and always wears his battle armor. The King of Qin uses an ancient way of saying 'I', 寡人 ( ), which literally means 'lonely person', but consists of the two Chinese characters '寡' which means less, or lacking, and '人' which means man, or person, in ancient Chinese, it has the meaning of 'a man who lacks morals (寡德之人)', since royalty is mostly gained by shedding blood. This way of referring to himself in the third person has a parallel in the Western notion of the "Royal 'We'" or Pluralis majestatis.

Donnie Yen – Sky
Legendary outlaw and accomplished spearman, Sky is the first to be "defeated" by Nameless, who takes Sky's broken spear as proof of his defeat to the King.

Zhang Ziyi – Moon
Broken Sword's loyal apprentice.

Reception and interpretation

Box office

When Hero opened in Hong Kong in December 2002, it grossed a massive HK $15,471,348 in its first week. Its final gross of HK $26 million made it one of the top films in Hong Kong that year. On August 27, 2004, after a long delay, Hero opened in 2,031 North American screens uncut and subtitled. It debuted at #1, grossing US $18,004,319 ($8,864 per screen) in its opening weekend. The total was the second highest opening weekend ever for a foreign language film; only The Passion of the Christ has opened to a better reception. Its US $53,710,019 North American box office gross makes it the fourth highest-grossing foreign language film and 15th highest-grossing martial arts film in North American box office history. The total worldwide box office gross was US $177,394,432.

Critical response

The film received extremely favorable reviews scoring 95% at Rotten Tomatoes and 84 at Metacritic. Roger Ebert called it "beautiful and beguiling, a martial arts extravaganza defining the styles and lives of its fighters within Chinese tradition." Richard Corliss of Time described it as "the masterpiece", adding that "it employs unparalleled visual splendor to show why men must make war to secure the peace and how warriors may find their true destiny as lovers." Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington called it "swooningly beautiful, furious and thrilling" and "an action movie for the ages." Charles Taylor of took an especially positive stance deeming it "one of the most ravishing spectacles the movies have given us". Nevertheless there were several film critics who felt the film had advocated autocracy and reacted with discomfort. The Village Voice's reviewer deemed it to have a "cartoon ideology" and justification for ruthless leadership comparable to Triumph of the Will.

Political meaning and criticism

This film has faced criticism from abroad at a perceived pro-totalitarian and pro-Chinese reunification subtext. Critics also cited as evidence the approval that had been given to the film by the government of the People's Republic of China. These critics argued that the ulterior meaning of the film was triumph of security and stability over liberty and human rights, analogous to the "Asian values" concept that gained brief popularity in the 1990s.

In some respects, the film has not been well received by the Chinese. Although it was then the biggest Chinese film in terms of investment (since surpassed by Red Cliff in 2009), and received excellent box office returns, it drew heavy criticism from within the Chinese community due to its simplistic storyline and themes. Notably, director Zhang Yimou's later big budget film House of Flying Daggers was also criticized in China for the same reason.

The film's director, Zhang Yimou, purportedly withdrew from the 1999 Cannes Film Festivalmarker to protest similar criticism, though some believed that Zhang had other reasons. Defenders of Zhang and his film argued that the Chinese government's approval of Hero was no different from the U.S. military providing support to films such as Top Gun and Black Hawk Down, in which certain filmmakers portrayed the U.S. armed forces in a positive light. Others have rejected entirely the notion that Zhang had any political motives in his making of the film. Zhang Yimou himself had maintained that he had absolutely no political points to make.

Translation of "tianxia"

There has been some criticism of the film for its American-release translation of one of the central ideas in the film: 天下 . It literally means "all (everything and everyone) under heaven", and is a phrase to mean "the World". In fact, for its release in Belgium, some two years before the U.S. release, the subtitled translation was indeed "all under heaven". However, the version shown in American cinemas was localized as the two-word phrase "Our land" instead, which seems to denote just the nation of Chinamarker rather than the whole world. Whether Zhang Yimou intended the film to also have meaning with regard to the world and world unity was at that time difficult to say. Zhang Yimou was asked about the change at a screening in Massachusettsmarker and said it was a problem of translation: "If you ask me if 'Our land' is a good translation, I can't tell you. All translations are handicapped. Every word has different meanings in different cultures," he said. However, in Cause: The Birth of Hero – a documentary on the making of Hero – Zhang mentions that he hopes the film will have some contemporary relevance, and that, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks (which took place just before the movie was filmed) the themes of universal brotherhood and "peace under heaven" may indeed be interpreted more globally, and taken to refer to peace in "the world." The phrase was later changed in television-release versions of the film.

Miramax release

Miramax, the film studio, owned the American-market distribution rights, but delayed the release of the film, a record total of six times. Import DVDs of the film were sold online and Miramax demanded that the sites cease selling the DVD. The movie was finally released in American theaters on August 27, 2004 after intervention by Disney executives and Quentin Tarantino, who helped secure an uncut English-subtitled release. He also offered to lend his name to promotional material for the film in order to attract box office attention to it; his name was attached to the credits as "Quentin Tarantino Presents". In addition, a sword held by Jet Li's character in the original promotional poster was replaced by weapon resembling a katana, a Japanese weapon, in the North American promotional poster, which was both anachronistic and culturally misplaced. The United States version of the DVD, with Mandarin, English, and French soundtracks, was released on November 30, 2004.

Awards and recognition

DVD release

An extended edition with eight minutes of additional footage was released in China. However, it was rumored that the original film was slated to be some 20 minutes longer, with critical character building of the five main characters (Nameless, Broken Sword, Flying Snow, Long Sky and the future Emperor of Qin). It features minor differences in story, music, and fight sequences to those of the theatrical version. One particular difference in the extended version of 'Hero' was Moon attempting to take her life before Nameless stops her after Broken Sword left with his sword and words. Hero is one of very few titles to be released on EVD as well as DVD.


  • The film was scored by Tan Dun, a famous contemporary classical composer.
  • The theme song "Hero" (英雄) by Zhang Yadong and Lin Xi is sung by Faye Wong. It is unavailable in the American version of both the film DVD and soundtrack album.
  • Wind & Sand (風沙) is a theme song inspired by the film and sung by actor Tony Leung. It is only available in his album of that name.
  • The musical instrument seen and played during the fight in the Weiqi courtyard scene is a guqin, the Chinese seven-stringed zither. The music was performed by Liu Li on a guqin.

Other media

  • The comic book version of the story by Ma Wing-Shing is faithful to the film's story for the most part, until the ending. In this version, all of the heroes survive.
  • Drum n' bass group Evol Intent have a song entitled "Broken Sword" which appears on the Dieselboy compilation album The Human Resource on both discs. The song samples the film's soundtrack.
  • R&B artist Bobby Valentino samples from the movie on the single titled "Tell Me".
  • Hero (Music from the Original Soundtrack) Itzhak Perlman, Kodo & Tan Dun.[40357]


  1. Hero Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes
  2. Hero (2004): Reviews
  6. "Hero" –
  7. village voice > film > Man With No Name Tells a Story of Heroics, Color Coordination by J. Hoberman
  9. 'I'm not interested in politics' | Interviews | Film
  11. YouTube – "Cause: The Birth Of Hero" Documentary Part 17 of 17
  12. Slideshow: Studio Warns Kung Fu Site
  13. Hero soundtrack CD track list at
  14. Hero

External links

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