Marrying the best elements of a western thriller with the established emotional charm of K-dramas, Netflix’s Song of the Bandits is a tightly woven period drama to be indulged. Focusing on the different layers that emerge within a society fighting for its independence, the show balances the many genres it chooses to dive into, while not losing sight of the core narrative.
Set during the early 20th century, when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese occupation, Song of the Bandits follows Lee Yoon (Kim Nam-gil), a Korean Lieutenant in the Japanese Army who defects. Burdened by the guilt of his actions six years ago, when he gave away the location of civilian militias fighting the Japanese for their independence, he tracks down Choi Choong-soo (Yoo Jae-myung), whose base he revealed to the Japanese. Soon after, in Gando — a no-man’s land where mounted bandits, Japanese police and the Chinese all fight to gain control — Yoon and Choong-soo come together to form their own bandit group, to protect the civilians from the effects of this infighting.
This inevitably involves defending against not only the Japanese mounted bandits, but also the Japanese military itself. As Yoon and his group charge on horses, across swathes of barren land, looting Japanese armoured vehicles, the show fulfils the goals it has been chasing — of replicating the sandy grittiness of westerns. But that doesn’t completely dilute the storyline that foregrounds the Korean struggle for independence. Though starting off slow, as it establishes its vast cast of characters, the show quickly gains speed to weave the unique independence movements of different societal strata.
Song of the Bandits (Korean, Japanese)
Director: Hwang Jun-hyeok
Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Seohyun, Yoo Jae-myung, Lee Hyun-wook, Lee Ho-jung, and others
Run-time: 50 to 55 minutes
Storyline: Bandits fight for their freedom and protect civilians, in early 20th century Korea, under Japanese occupation
We meet an independence activist working undercover at the Japanese government offices, while on the other side, poor peasants band together to oppose land-grabbing. Such characterisations ensure a richness of the subject matter, providing different shades to the same story. However, there were some aspects of this approach that were also underutilised. A Korean-born man serving as the Major in the Japanese Army, Gwang-il (Lee Hyun-wook) proves to be an interesting mould for a character. There is an inherent conflict in faithfully serving the Japanese empire at the expense of your home country. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t quite spend much time exploring this internal tussle, instead painting him with the broad strokes of an antagonist. There are revealing moments, like the one where he repeats his Japanese name thrice in front of his senior, but the nuance of these is not consistent.
Fast-paced and filled with twists that carry forth an otherwise slow story, Song of the Bandits makes for an easy, entertaining binge-watch. Though chock-full of swashbuckling action sequences, it also manages a plot-heavy, sensitive storyline.
Song of the Bandits is now available for streaming on Netflix