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Home > ‘Song of the Bandits’ (2023-2024): A Review

‘Song of the Bandits’ (2023-2024): A Review

‘Song of the Bandits’ is a Korean drama that mixes historical events with a Western vibe. Kim Nam-gil plays bandit leader Lee Yoon in "Song of the Bandits."

Old School Western Vibes in South Korea

Song of The Bandits is a thrilling Korean drama that combines action and suspense with Western cinematic scenes. The setting is an important element of the story, but it’s the complex characters and their internal conflicts that bring the series to life. The romantic subplot is well-executed and doesn’t overshadow the main plot, which can be an issue in some Korean dramas. The series is directed by Joon-Hyeok Hwang and Park Hun-suk, with a budget of 30 million won (KRW) (equivalent to around USD 22,200). Netflix released the series on September 22, 2023.

Using the Time Period as Part of the Plot

Song of The Bandits effectively incorporates the time period in which the story takes place. Many other movies and TV shows use this technique, and when done well, the period can impact or drive the plot in some way. Whether the period is set in the future or the past, using it as a character in itself is a powerful tool, and Song of The Bandits does this exceptionally well. Although the series doesn’t specify the year, it is set in the 1920s, during Japan’s occupation of South Korea. This creates tension in the plot and motivates the characters in a way that may not have been possible without the specific historical context.

During the Song of The Bandits series, the time period is used to drive the plot and emphasize certain points. The first episode of the series exemplifies this technique perfectly. In this episode, as one of the main characters, Lee Yoon (played by Kim Nam-Gil), rides on horseback through an open land, the camera pans out to show a tall tree with people hung from almost every limb. These people are all Korean and subject to the cruelty of the Japanese occupation. This one-shot sets the tone for the rest of the series by being brutally honest about the time period. Although there may have been some good back then, the occupation of South Korea was a dark time in world history. The series takes it a step further by displaying the power dynamic every time there is a Japanese soldier/citizen in a scene with a Korean citizen. 

Complex Characters & Issues 

One of the most complex characters is Lee Yoon. What makes him exciting to watch is his backstory. Lee Yoon was a slave in Korea before the Japanese occupation. Afterward, he became a soldier for the Japanese and became one of the most decorated. However, he eventually loses his appetite for fighting and killing his countrymen and begins to drink his life away. As the series progresses, viewers get to see him struggle with guilt, shame, and rage, which makes the show incredibly interesting. On the other hand, there is Lee Gwang-II, played by Lee Hyun-wook. Lee Gwang is a Korean-born citizen who became a Japanese general. He learns the language and looks down on his fellow Korean citizens, just like any other Japanese soldier would.

‘Song of the Bandits’ is a Korean drama that mixes historical events with a Western vibe. Kim Nam-gil and Lee Ho-jung in 'Song of the Bandits.’
Image courtesy: Yu Ara/Netflix.

There are a couple of characters in the Korean drama Song of The Bandits that are particularly interesting. Eon Nyeon, played by Lee Ho-Jung, and Nam Hee-Shin, played by Seohyun, both have complex storylines. Nyeon is first introduced as a contract killer, but as the series progresses, viewers see her transform into an even more ruthless killer willing to do whatever it takes to make money. In contrast to Nyeon, Nam Hee becomes a Japanese spokesperson while secretly working as a double agent for Korea. 

This drama touches on heavy themes that most Korean dramas don’t typically cover. They usually focus on romance or comedy, but Song of The Bandits explores subjects such as war, violence, killing, self-hatred, and the cost of freedom.

Western Cinema Used Differently 

A new take on an old recipe comes to mind when watching Song of The Bandits. There is a big element within the series that reminds viewers of old Western films. It could have something to do with the shootout scenes that happen in the series. Or it could have something to do with a certain group of people fighting a powerful and overwhelming number of people who are foreign to the land. Just like Native Americans always did against the cowboys and flocks of people who came out west. However, Song of The Bandits puts a new spin on the genre. It incorporates hand-to-hand combat, bow and arrow techniques, and long-range rifles in its action sequences. There’s still the old-fashioned stare-down and draw scene, but there are also scenes where characters are running throughout a building and shooting through walls to get the person on the other side.  

Song of The Bandits has one scene that captures that Western feel so well, and it’s so simple. The scene is when the characters are on a train, and they are forced off. As they disembark, the Japanese appear and begin trying to find some freedom fighters who they believe are on the train, but a huge sandstorm appears and obstructs everyone’s vision. This one old-school technique of having a natural disaster happen leads to a deadly shootout where normal citizens get killed. There are many examples like this throughout the series, so if any Western fans like it and don’t mind reading subtitles, then Song of The Bandits is a must-watch. 

Should You Stream It?

In the end, Song of The Bandits is a must-watch for anyone looking for a gritty series that has character depth and an emotional story. The sub-plots are vast, and it never feels like they are overshadowing the main plot. Korean drama enthusiasts probably recognize a name or two that was mentioned here, so that alone would be a good reason to watch. Song of The Bandits could be coming back to Netflix for another season. So, even more time is needed to do the storytelling the right way.  

‘Song of the Bandits’ is a Korean drama that mixes historical events with a Western vibe. (Left to right): Seohyun as Nam Hee-Shin, Kim Nam-Gil as Lee Yoon, and Eon Nyeon as Lee Ho-Jung in 'Song of the Bandits.'
Image courtesy of Netflix.

Song of the Bandits (2023) Official Netflix Asia Trailer 

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.