In 17th Century Korea, two young children, a brother and sister, see their father killed and barely escape with their own lives. They seek shelter with the family of one of their father's friends and grow up as outcasts, their father called a traitor.
The boy, Nam-Yi (Park Hae-Il), grows up embittered, developing the skills of a great archer as well as those of a drunken brawler, while his sister Ja-In (Moon Chae-Won) wants to belong to normal society. She agrees to marry the son of their guardian, Seo Goon (Kim Moo-Yeol), although his mother remains somewhat hostile to the two exiles.
On the wedding day, Nam-Yi rides away from the ceremony, only to be drawn back when he sees a raiding party of Qing soldiers from Manchuria heading for the village. Under Prince Dorgon (Park Ki-Woong) and his general Jyu Shin-Ta (Ryu Seung-Ryong), the invaders massacre many of the villagers and take the rest, including the young bride and groom, prisoner; they begin a long trek to the north, making for the border.
Nam-Yi and two companions set off to track their enemies and wage a war of attrition as they try to rescue the prisoners.
Apart from occasional large-scale fantasies like The Lord of the Rings, Conan, and the like, Hollywood has pretty much abandoned the kind of epic filmmaking that the studios used to be proud of. This is not so much because the audience for such films has disappeared as it is that western filmmakers have lost the ability to take romantic epics seriously. Heroes today need to be cynical, there are no just causes left to fight for; gone are knights in armor and questing Norsemen.
But Asian cinema has been more than willing to fill the niche, and in the past decade or so a number of international successes have come out of the East, films like Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (2004). With thousands of years of complex history to draw on and a rich tradition of romance and martial arts, these films offer the kind of narrative pleasures that in the West are now generally relegated to fantasy. Not that fantasy is absent from many of these Asian movies; new technologies have made it possible to push traditional tropes far beyond earlier limits and it's a rare martial arts film which doesn't see its characters flying as much as they wield their swords.