Edited by Seo Hae Lan
Translated by Eungee Joh
Netflix has delivered a thrilling holiday treat with Song of the Bandits, a riveting ‘Joseon Western’ series that takes us on a wild ride back to the 1920s. This action-packed drama features characters on horseback wielding rifles, much to the reminiscence of the cult classic The Good, the Bad, the Weird. But what truly distinguishes this series is its firm grounding in a specific period of Korean history, skillfully blending the excitement of action with the weight of tragedy.
Gando, or Jiandao, which also was featured in The Good, the Bad, the Weird movie, is a lawless land in China that is funded by Japanese money and filled with Korean souls. Former Japanese soldier Lee Yoon (played by Kim Nam Gil) arrives in this lawless territory seeking death but ends up witnessing local bandits brutally extorting Koreans. Not only does he step in to protect them but he also forms a civilian army to defend the people against the Japanese army and local thieves. By 1920, the group gains notoriety, and rumors spread that they plan to steal the Gando Line Railroad Fund to aid Korean independence fighters.
Amid the chaotic battlefield where not only the local robber but also the Japanese army, police and mobsters converge, Lee Yoon has fatefule encounters with Nam Hee Shin (Seohyun), his long-time love, Lee Gwang Il (Lee Hyun Wook), a Japanese-Korean soldier who he shares a mysterious past with, and Eon Nyeon (Lee Ho Jung), a woman tasked with killing him.
This drama combines the classic 1950s-1970s ‘Manchurian Western’ genre with the style of The Good, the Bad, the Weird. It brings many Western elements to life, such as a lawless town, saloon fights, gunfights on horseback, and more. The story follows a charismatic leader and his followers in deadly situations and bloody battles that ultimately ends in victory. There’s also a hint of romance as the main male and female characters form a bond through traveling together, and a dash of excitement with a formidable villain who’s been pursuing them all their lives. This series has everything to spark curiosity and get enthusiastic reactions from viewers.
However, you must wait until the series establishes its narrative and characters before the story truly begins. This cannot be simply skipped, as the story of a slave named Keunom becoming a Japanese soldier named Lee Yoon and forming a bandit in Gando is closely tied to the history of early 1900s Korea. Events like the 1905 Gabo Reform and the 1909 Honam Subjugation Operation greatly influenced the lives of the characters in this drama. Even the Battle of Fengwudong, where the independence fighters triumphed over the Japanese army, is mentioned in passing, foreshadowing a great tragedy for the Koreans in Gando. Perhaps that’s why the clashes and swordfights involving characters like Lee Yoon, who are somewhat peculiar, aren’t just fun and light hearted to watch but carry a deep emoional weight.
Song of the Bandits skillfully incorporates special elements that are typically found in its genre, while also using an important period in Korean history as its background. This combination is effective in some aspects and less so in others, with the most successful part being the action scenes. While there are visually brutal moments, the satisfaction comes from the perspective of ‘our side taking down the villains.’ Furthermore, the show portrays the characters’ personalities and changing relationships through various action scenes. Throughout the drama, the most gratifying moments come when Lee Yoon and Eon Nyeon, who have been enemies throughout the series, join hands for a common goal. Ultimately, the way the action scenes are filmed and the way the actors perform their roles add a distinctive character to this script that follows the traditional style of its genre.
The actors really shine, not only in the action scenes but also throughout the entire drama. Their performances are genuinely impressive, and it’s not just Kim Nam Gil who delivers; many others do too. Particularly, Lee Hyun Wook does a fantastic job portraying Lee Gwang Il, Lee Yoon’s lifelong rival. He captures various sides of him, from his cowardly loser like quality to his brutal ruthlessness to his genuine feelings for Hee Jung. But the real standout in this drama is Lee Ho Jung. She plays Eon Nyeon, a character who steals, kills and lies exceptionally well. Both her emotional and action performances are truly memorable.
While there are things that could’ve been done better, Song of the Bandits seems to have successfully introduced the unique ‘Joseon Western’ genre. And even as the big battles wrap up in the final episode, the story isn’t finished—it actually hints at a Season 2 in the last scene. If the next season gets made, what kind of story will it unfold? Especially knowing that there is a looming tragedy, with the Japanese planning to massacre Koreans in Gando, it leaves us curious about how Lee Yoon and his bandit will survive in what’s about to become a land engulfed in tragedy. (7/10)
Editor Seo Hae Lan: I’m not picky and like all genres. I am in constant search of a balance between criticism and a fan’s heart.