Song of the Bandits Season 1 Review – A Korean Take on a Classic Style

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: September 22, 2023 (Last updated: last month)
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Song of the Bandits Season 1 Review - A Korean take on a classic story
Song of the Bandits Season 1 (Credit - Netflix)
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Summary

Stellar action, a breakneck pace, and sumptuous production make Song of the Bandits one of the more broadly-appealing Korean dramas in recent memory.

Despite the monumental rise in popularity of Korean drama over the last few years, thanks in large part to streaming platforms like Netflix and the success of shows like Squid Game, it’s still hard to say that South Korea’s often stellar entertainment output quite qualifies as “mainstream.” It’s on its way there, of course, and Song of the Bandits might expedite the process. It’s a period drama, fundamentally, a sub-genre beloved by the nation perhaps above any other, but it’s also a distinctly modern show in its presentation and pacing, co-opting the iconic visual language and story beats of class Westerns.

Since there is no genre more beloved in the West or that has had more of an influence over popular culture, Netflix may well have fittingly struck gold with this deliberately anachronistic nine-parter, which feels like the best of both worlds.

Set in the 1920s, Song of the Bandits finds Korea under brutal Japanese occupation, with many Koreans having fled to the Gando region of China.

Among them is Lee Yoon, a former lieutenant and indentured servant in the Japanese army, though “fled” isn’t the right word in his case. He has ventured out to atone for his actions on behalf of the Japanese, seeking death at the hands of Choong-soo, a Korean independence fighter and the head of an ethnically Korean settlement in Gando whom he previously wronged.

What he finds, however, is purpose — an enemy to fight against, and a raggedy crew of like-minded bandits who are willing to fight alongside him.

Running parallel to this plot, and quickly intertwining with it, is the story of Nam Hee-shin, an undercover executive for the Japanese Government-General who enlists the services of a skilled assassin, Eon-nyeoni, to help heist substantial funds that have been earmarked for the construction of a railway vital to Japanese conquest — and all under the nose of her husband, Japanese officer Gwang-il.

With these outlines established, Song of the Bandits rockets off at quite a clip, with stellar action sequences aplenty and a powerful exploration of the expected themes of oppression, resistance, identity, and freedom.

This is all rendered with an appreciable degree of craft. It’s a predictably handsome-looking production, but the aesthetics are also underscored by pinpoint editing and an excellent soundtrack.

On a purely technical level, Song of the Bandits is inarguably impressive, but it also delivers well-rounded characters whose plights you’ll buy into on a fundamental level. It’s also, despite its length, an excellently-paced show. The nine episodes, each running around an hour, breeze by with a good balance of action and character development. For once, the elongated runtime isn’t a major obstacle, and it makes Song of the Bandits an ideal weekend binge, which is clearly what Netflix intended it to be with its full-season release.

K-Drama fans won’t need any encouragement to check this out, but Song of the Bandits won’t just satisfy the usual crowd. The Western stylings and excellent action give it a wider-than-usual appeal, and there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy.

It might not be another Squid Game, but there’s a good chance Song of the Bandits will be a real hit.

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