It was more than 2,000 years ago when China was divided into seven separate states, fighting ruthlessly with each other for supremacy.
Among them, the Kingdom of Qin was the most determined of all, with Ying Zheng, Qin's king, obsessed with defeating other kingdoms and becoming the first emperor of the enormous land.
As a result, Ying remained an assassination target of the other six states. Of all those trying to stop him from conquering all of China, hit men Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky were the most legendary.
That is the story told in director Zhang Yimou's martial-arts flick Yingxiong (Hero), which has stirred high expectations around the world.
The star-studded movie is scheduled to premiere across China on December 19.
A test screening has already been held in Shenzhen, in South China's Guangdong Province. About 700 movie fans were lucky enough to watch the film, many of whom paid 800 yuan (US$97) to touts for tickets originally sold for 50 yuan (US$6).
Chinese and international media representatives have been chasing the film's crew since shooting started for the movie three years ago.
During filming, a documentary was shot simultaneously to record the details of the crew's work. It is scheduled to air on dozens of provincial TV stations in China next month.
No Chinese film has received as much attention as Hero.
Ying Zheng's goal of uniting China was known to almost everyone within the nation and Zhang's desire with the film is also obvious enough.
The 51-year-old Zhang is China's leading director and regarded as a hero in his own right.
Over two decades, he has made emotional masterpieces, such as Hong Gaoliang (Red Sorghum), Dahong Denglong Gaogao Gua (Raise the Red Lantern) and Ju Dou.
He has also tried his hand at stage directing, such as a performance of Puccini's opera Turandot at the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Zhang and his crew made the movie with a budget of US$31 million. They hope it will attract a strong international following, copying the success of acclaimed Taiwan director Ang Lee's 2001 martial-arts blockbuster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
"We wanted to shoot a film with a story that international viewers will understand so that they will learn more why Chinese are so infatuated with martial arts," Zhang told a news conference in Hong Kong earlier this year.
Some believe that Zhang is not only aiming at international box-office success but is also gunning for the Oscars.
Whatever the speculation, Zhang has made huge efforts for the project, including assembling the hottest talent from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
Heading the stellar cast is international martial-arts superstar Jet Li of The Shaolin Temple and Kiss of the Dragon fame, who now commands US$10 million per movie. Li plays Nameless, a county governor who is determined to challenge the three would-be assassins.
Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung (Cheung Man Yuk) -- fresh from their award-winning performances in Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love -- reunite to play Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
Both are megastars in Hong Kong, whose movie industry was booming in the late 1980s but has dwindled more recently.
Leung has won the award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival, while Cheung has been named best actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
Crouching Tiger actress Zhang Ziyi, who has quickly become known throughout the world in recent years, plays Broken Sword's devoted servant, Moon.
Chen Daoming, a distinguished actor from the mainland, plays Ying Zheng, the powerful king of Qin.
Composer Tan Dun -- who won an Oscar last year for the music he composed for Crouching Tiger -- is responsible for the movie's score.
Also involved in the project was Chris Doyle, a renowned Australian cinematographer who speaks fluent putonghua and Cantonese.
Although Zhang has made many motion pictures that rank him as a first-class Chinese director, this is his first attempt at a martial-arts movie.
Wu Siyuan, a renowned Hong Kong director, has criticized publicly Zhang's use of so many megastars in Hero.
"Maybe he was not confident enough that he needs so many stars to help him feel secure," much of the Chinese media quoted the Hong Kong director as saying.
Zhang brushed aside the comment, however, saying he has never lacked confidence to attack a new project.
The two-time Venice Film Festival prizewinner was quite modest when speaking of Hero. While critics have suggested that it could match the success of Crouching Tiger -- which won four Oscars and was the first non-English-language movie to gross more than US$100 million at the United States box office -- Zhang said that "miracles will not be repeated."
He told a press conference in August: "It was extraordinary for 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' to get so many nominations and awards.
"I do not think history will repeat itself."
But the director admitted that the success of Crouching Tiger had boosted investors' confidence in Chinese movies and made it easier for him to seek funding for Hero.
"I have so much respect for Ang Lee for making the movie such a success," Zhang said.
"It sparked unprecedented international interest in Chinese films and in martial arts."
Zhang declined speculation that the shooting of his movie was inspired by Crouching Tiger and that he had sensed pressure after that film's unprecedented success.
"Everyone's imagination is different. Each director has his own goals, his own aesthetic and dramatic aspirations," said Zhang. He added that he has been a fan of martial-arts films since boyhood and that making a martial-arts movie has been one of his dreams.
Many of the first batch of viewers in Shenzhen spoke highly of Hero.
Yu Xue, a local reporter, said the movie was a feast for the eyes.
According to Yu, Zhang has split the movie into four chapters and each is symbolized by a specific color.
It starts with red, then moves to blue and green before concluding with white, which represents mourning in Chinese tradition.
The color scheme is present in the characters as well -- Cheung's character is transformed from a beauty in red at the start to a grieving woman in white at the end.
In order to achieve perfection, Zhang and his crew traveled great distances to find the ideal backdrop for each scene.
Many scenes were shot in beautiful locations, such as Dunhuang in Northwest China's Gansu Province and Jiuzhaigou in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
In order to make sure a fight scene between Cheung and Zhang Ziyi in an ancient oak wood in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was perfect, Zhang sent someone out to keep an eye on the leaves. That man's job was to wait until the leaves were a certain yellow color so he could notify the crew and they could reach the area on time.
While being deeply impressed with the beautiful scenes, Yu complained that "there was too much for the ears" as the music is too intrusive.
"It is omnipresent and distracting, and drowns out many natural sounds," Yu said.
(China Daily November 18, 2002)