During the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1928, young Tatsuo (later played by Joe Odagiri) arrives with his parents in Seoul where Tatsuo's grandfather is stationed as an army official. On his arrival at his grandfather's house, Tatsuo meets a young Korean boy named Joon-Sik (later played by Jang Dong-Gun). Joon-Sik, his younger sister and his father all work and reside in the Japanese official's home. Young Tatsuo and Joon-Sik both enjoy running and have competed since as marathon runners.
As high school students, Tatsuo wins a marathon race. To celebrate Tatsuo's victory, a party is held at his grandfather's home. Joon-Sik and his family serve food during the party. A man then hands a small box to Joon-Sik's father instructing him to give the box as a present to Tatsuo. Joon-Sik's father then hands the present to Tatsuo in front of all the guests. Tatsuo opens the box and takes out a small doll like present. A clicking sound is then heard. Tatsuo's grandfather suddenly grabs the doll and dives on top of it. A violent explosion then occurs.
Tatsuo's grandfather dies from the explosion and Joon-Sik's father is taken away by the police. Joon-Sik's father is released by the police, but not as the same man as he was before. He was severely beaten and is now crippled. Joon-Sik and his family are kicked out of Tatsuo's home. Tatsuo also points a sword at Joon-Sik and warns him to never cross his path again.
Time passes and Joon-Sik supports his family by working as a rickshaw runner. A qualifying marathon race is about to be held for the upcoming Olympics, but Koreans are not allowed to participate. A press conference is held for the qualifying match with Tatsuo in attendance. Korean marathon runner Son Ki-Jung, winner from the Berlin Olympics, crashes the press conference and demands that Korean runners be allowed to compete in the qualifying race. Son Ki-Jung made it to the press conference with the help of Joon-Sik, who ran through the streets at incredible speeds with Son Ki-Jung riding in his rickshaw. During the press conference Joon-Sik asks to take part in the match.
Meanwhile, Tatsuo grew up under the influence of his military officer grandfather. Tatsuo is extremely loyal to the Japanese Emperor and willing to die for his country, but Tatsuo's father is different. Tatsuo's father is a doctor and believes human life is more important than war. Tatsuo's father wanted Tatsuo to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, but Tatsuo refused.
Son Ki-Jung then arrives at Joon-Sik's home and gives him the good news that he is allowed to take part in the Olympic qualifying match.
The race takes place with a large attendance. Koreans and Japanese stand by cheering on their favorite runners. Towards the finish line, Tatsuo holds a slim lead over Joon-Sik, but is overtaken prior to crossing the finish line by Joon-Sik. Yet, the announcer declares Tatsuo as the winner. Joon-Sik protests in front of the marathon director, but is beaten by nearby guards. A riot quickly ensues. The Koreans that riot against the Japanese guards are then arrested. The arrested Koreans, including Joon-Sik, learn that they are now conscripted into the Japanese army as their punishment.
Now Joon-Sik and other Koreans find themselves fighting for the Japanese Imperial Army in China. One day, they gather in line to greet a new Japanese colonel for their unit. The man that gets out of the car is Tatsuo ...