Cheng Do (Donnie Yen) is the well-educated younger son of an unpleasant, miserly salt baron who pours attention on Cheng, grooming him to be a scholar, and ignores his hardworking elder son (Yuen Yat Chor). The brothers have a loving relationship with each other, despite some strain from their father's unequal treatment of them. Both brothers are skilled in external martial arts, though their father disapproves of Cheng practicing kung fu when he should be studying. One day, a local bully with a nobleman father harasses the townsfolk, and Cheng fights, defeats, and humiliates him. That night, the bully and his partners in crime ambush Cheng and his brother, attempting to burn them with fireworks. The brothers turn the tables on the bully, but Cheng accidentally goes too far, inflicting permanent brain damage on the bully that renders him mentally disabled. The bully's father hires an assassin to murder Cheng and his family and friends. The assassin is a master of external martial arts. He murders Cheng's father, brother, and friends, and burns Cheng's home down, destroying the family fortune. Cheng escapes, but is left orphaned, homeless, penniless, and friendless. Cheng stumbles across a puppeteer (Yuen Cheung-Yan) being assaulted by rival showmen. The puppeteer is successfully defending himself, but Cheng comes to his aid anyway and inadvertently destroys his booth by kicking one of the assailants into it. The puppeteer insists that Cheng pay for the damage. Cheng has no money, so he follows the puppeteer home to work off his debt. There, Cheng befriends the wine-loving, humorously eccentric puppeteer and his wife (Lydia Shum), but is sent away when he accidentally offends them. It is revealed that the assassin is mute and is the single father of a young boy who lives at a nursery because his father is unable to support him. Despite this, the assassin and his son deeply love each other. The assassin makes a wooden horse for his son, but the other children mock it for looking amateurish. The assassin's son boldly stands up for his father. Later, the assassin's son is kidnapped by street thugs, but is rescued and befriended by Cheng. Despite this, the assassin continues to hunt Cheng, determined to finish his job. The assassin ambushes Cheng and almost kills him, but Cheng escapes again and flees back to the puppeteer's house, where the puppeteer and his wife were regretting having sent Cheng away. When Cheng returns, the puppeteer reveals that he is a master of T'ai chi, and he trains Cheng to counter the assassin's hard style with soft. The nobleman who hired the assassin is about to have his birthday, and he contracts the puppeteer to give a performance at the celebrations. He demands an original performance, though, which the puppeteer doesn't have ready. Cheng comes to the rescue by using his physical skills to give an original performance. His costume prevents him from being recognized. After the performance, Cheng overhears the nobleman saying that he hired the assassin who murdered Cheng's family and friends and burned his home and fortune. Cheng reveals himself to the nobleman, who turns out to be a skilled external martial artist too. The nobleman attempts to murder Cheng, who fights back with a combination of Tai Chi and his former external style. During the fight, the nobleman is killed by his own insane son. Cheng flees back to the puppeteer's house. The next morning, Cheng drinks some wine, then prepares to confront the assassin. However, the assassin finds him first, having learned his location. Cheng counters the assassin's hard style with soft Tai Chi and kills the assassin. Cheng then tells the assassin's son that his father has gone away. When his son asks him to take him to his father, he falls off the swing he was swinging on.