The beginnings of the 20th century were a tumultuous time for East Asia, but particularly for the Korean Peninsula. Under violent and stringent Japanese colonial rule, many were forced to live in harsh conditions and in constant fear of torture. Many tried to escape in hopes for a better life away from Japan’s oppressive forces, resorting to dangerous escapades toward lawless regions on Chinese land for safety and a sense of autonomy. And in Song of the Bandits, one of those is our main protagonist, Lee Yoon (Kim Nam-gil).
A slave soldier of the Japanese war, Yoon is haunted by the spectre of an incident that took place in Gando, situated somewhere northeast China, but is compelled to head back when he receives an anonymous note about the location of a man he’s looking for. On the way, he reconnects with a fellow former slave, Choi Chung-soo (Yoo Jae-myung), who has since escaped and now makes a living selling guns to anyone who has the money for it. She warns him of the chaos that awaits him in Gando: “Chinese land, Japanese money and Joseon’s people,” with no monarch or governor to reign them in.
As if matters couldn’t be any worse, bandits also terrorise the area – they steal, murder and destroy the innocent townspeople. Yoon, while on his mission to revisit the past traumas of Gando for his personal vendetta, plans to raise an independent army against both the bandits and Japanese soldiers, recruiting skilled fighters and strategists along the way as they plough through throngs of mercenary bandits in an attempt to claim back their freedom.
Song of the Bandits treads the sensitive subject of Korea’s time as a Japanese colony with the immense grace of beautiful cinematography, writing and direction. Although not entirely historically accurate, this K-drama encapsulates not only the human condition of Joseon’s people at the time, but also the multifaceted cultures of 1900s East Asia. The Old West influences are palpable and speak to the growing influence of the West at the time in Asia, while simultaneously harking back to the traditional fighting styles of the region: katanas and classic archery.
Half of the fun on Song of the Bandits is found in its fight sequences, masterfully choreographed by the production team and equally thrilling performances by Kim Nam-gil. His crew of independence fighters also have unique fighting styles and personalised weapons that compliment each other, which makes their battles as a team even more nail-biting to watch. The impeccable cinematography of these sequences do the cast’s performances justice, even if it does sometimes fall back on well-worn tropes of one or two overpowered heroes laying waste to a group of 20 trained killers without breaking a sweat.
It is an emotionally fulfilling series to watch that inspires a critical look back on history and the impact of Japanese colonisation over Joseon, but Song of the Bandits sometimes threatens to spread itself too thin. The fight scenes, as great as they are, can be overly indulgent, like they were included for the sake of giving the fans what they want (Kim Nam-gil being a badass). There are also so many subplots happening at once, with the sheer amount of events interweaving across the series’ wider story feeling too overwhelming to thoroughly follow at times..
Song of the Bandits still shines among Netflix’s Korean originals this year and is poised to be one of the most cinematically stunning. This action-packed masterpiece, despites its few shortcomings, knows its strengths as a gripping, entertaining slice of the country’s history and fully embraces it.
Song of the Bandits is available to stream on Netflix