Turbulent times in history provide compelling backdrops for drama. Western audiences are used to stories that explore ingrained contextual knowledge about western history, but there is a whole world out there.
Song of the Bandits, set during the period of Japanese rule of Korea (between 1910 to 1945), crafts a tale out of real events where outlaws in the wild north fought to carve out a free existence.
“But I don’t know anything about East Asian early 20th century history!” you may cry. Don’t worry. Even if the detail isn’t known to an audience by default, the iconography of a outlier society is a recognisable one.
What Is Song of the Bandits About?
Gando is a land far from the reach of central Japanese control, with Chinese interests pushing downward.
Bandits roam the land. Independence fighters consort and gather. The ordinary people are downtrodden, but a few renegades take a stand.
Song of the Bandits takes real historical context and events and infuses them with a thrilling clutch of characters.
Central to the power struggle interplay is the relationship between bandit leader Lee Yoon (Kim Nam-gil, Pandora) and Lee Gwang-il (Lee Hyun-wook), his former master.
Their dynamic is a complex one which serves both the stoic performance of Kim and conflicted position of Lee.
Although grateful to be ‘freed’ by his master, Lee Yoon is held under an obligation of seemingly endless gratitude in Gwang-il’s eyes.
Yet Gwang-il used to be of higher social stock, now reduced to serving in a Japanese army that hates him for his race, regardless of how high he climbs the ranks.
Hyun-wook manages the not easy task of giving an arrogant and repellent character the merest hint of self-doubt required to stop him becoming a one-note villain.
The show has plenty of slings and arrows to throw at the Japanese, a special ire for Joseon ‘collaborators’. Even as Gwang-il’s fury bubbles over into slaughter, that it comes from a place of internalised impotence makes for compelling television.
Song of the Bandits Official Trailer
Is Song of the Bandits Worth Watching?
Whilst never disrespecting the subject matter, Song of the Bandits takes influences from John Woo style gunplay and a Magnificent Seven / Seven Samurai ensemble approach.
After a dour opening episode setting all the character dynamics up, the brakes are taken off. Although at times Kim Nam-gil’s performance is so subtle as to border on stone faced, he is surrounded by a cast that contrasts him nicely.
Action is delivered thanks to contract killer Eon Nyeon (Lee Ho-hung) who was hired to kill Lee Yoon after he left for Gando to seek out those he wronged during his time conscripted into the Japanese army.
Ho-hung brings a swaggering cool attitude to her performance that brightens up any scene she is in.
Song of Bandits keeps the mixture thriving. Lee Yoon’s new found bandit family (with their bingo card set of skills including sharp shooter, axe wielder, bow and arrow elder, and big strong brute) provide both pathos and comedy.
Hampered romance comes via secret independence fighter Nam Hee-shin (Seohyun) who agreed to marry Gwang-il to extract intelligence from him but is unaware that Lee Yoon has admired her from afar for years.
And the Japanese characters provide a window into a dark period of history for Korea, where any indiscretion could see you executed as a ‘seditious Joseon person’.
If you can get past the downbeat opening episode then Song of the Bandits has sack loads of gunslinging, frontier action set upon the foundations of a great cast and historical context.
I was hooked throughout and left hungry for a season two (fingers crossed). Come join the righteous army, and hear what songs these outlaws have to sing.
Words by Mike Record
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