Song Of The Bandits
 도적 칼의 소리
Netflix (2023) 9 Episodes
Historical Melodrama, Action, Romance
Grade: A+ (Masterpiece) Mature Audiences (Violence)
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
(No End Spoilers)

I've loved Korean actor Nam Gil Kim for two decades and was very excited to watch his new historical drama Song Of The Bandits (2023) in Super HD Widescreen on Netflix. I first saw him in memorable, popular series classics such as Lovers, Bad Guy and Shark. He is an intense actor to watch, always bringing out hidden depths to his characters that other actors would most likely fail to deliver. In some ways he has reminded me of a Korean version of American actor Marlon Brando when he was young, with the same kind of magnetism and sex appeal.

The story of this new historical Korean television series combines a 1920's costume drama with a Western setting and aura, similar to the great Korean epic film The Good, The Bad, And The Weird by the director of Parasite Bong Joon Ho. I've always been fascinated by 1920's Korea when it was controlled by the invader Japan (that invasion didn't fully end till 1945). There is little doubt that the budget allocated for Song Of The Bandits was quite large, which makes this Korean production even more mesmerizing to watch: from the beautiful, expansive rural settings, to the authentic period architecture, costumes, cars, furniture, to the very rich plethora of primary and secondary characters, we find ourselves faced with a very ambitious series, which deserves a prestigious place in the nation's catalogue of superior television dramas. I'm sure many viewers wished it had lasted longer than its nine episodes, including myself! That's probably its only "fault" (unless, of course, there's a season two!).

Superb Attention To Historical Details
Makes Song Of The Bandits Extra-Special!

Nam Gil Kim's two leading ladies were truly exceptional: romantic first leading lady Seohyun (film My Brilliant Life) and startlingly amazing second leading lady Lee Ho Jung (Scarlet Heart Ryeo) who displayed an amazingly strong dexterity in action scenes, since she played a nimble female assassin! Often I would literally GASP! at her physical prowess in her action scenes, which even rivaled the male cast members' output! Plus, as a third leading lady, playing Nam Gil Kim's supportive friend, I was happy to see character actress Cha Chung Hwa (Crash Landing On You, See You In My 19th Life) who always delivers delightful performances.

Nam Gil Kim With Leading Ladies Seohyun and Lee Ho Jung

The Story:

Our story begins in the early 1920's, the period of time when Japan occupied Korea and controlled it militarily. One Korean man, Lee Yoon (Nam Gil Kim), had been forced by the dramatic circumstances of his life to fight for the Japanese army, whose ranks he has risen in due to his incredible skills as a strategist and fighter. After many years, however, he is worn out, remorseful of the atrocities he committed in the war against his own countrymen. He wants to escape, and somehow make recompense for his sins. An older supportive female friend named Kim Seon Bok (Cha Chung Hwa) who openly runs an inn, but who secretly makes her real fortune in the illegal gun trade, helps him to succeed, to begin a new life.

Lee Yoon escapes the control of the Japanese, particularly of his main military rival named Lee Gwangi (Lee Hyun Wook), who supports the Japanese occupation, and he travels to Gando, a rural Chinese province where many Koreans have settled over the years to try and live a more normal life. 

However, in time we realize that Lee Yoon has traveled to Gando not to gain a new peaceful life, but rather to die. The "sword" Lee Yoon has chosen to die on is that of an older Korean man named Choi Choon (prolific veteran actor Yoo Jae Myung, Itaewon Class, Stranger, Jealousy Incarnate, King 2 Hearts), a father who had lost his entire family because of him. When Lee Yoon finally finds him, however, and asks to be killed, something stands in the way of his plan to allow Choi Choon to end his life: Choi Choon amazingly does not want revenge on Lee Yoon for killing his entire family! He seems to want something else instead: to use his military skills to protect the villagers at the mercy of the invaders of Gando, no matter who they may be.

In this isolated region where Choi Choon lives in Gando the Japanese are still trying to infiltrate, and Chinese barbarians sometimes disrupt the villagers' attempted peace as well. Entire small villages are in the process of being ruthlessly attacked at the hands of cruel outlaws, who, thanks to the rampant corruption among the higher authorities, don't have to answer to anyone for their barbarism.

So much for the Korean people in Gando trying to achieve a peaceful, normal life! Choi Choon knows all too well Lee Yoon's superior fighting skills would be a boon to them, and he wants to use them to battle for Korean independence. Lee Yoon can't be used effectively in that way if he's dead!

So Lee Yoon agrees to Choi Choon's request, and finds a new reason for living: to train these new Korean bandits to defend their homes. Following the same purpose of freedom and revenge as Lee Yoon are Nam Hee Shin (Seohyun), a woman who works for the Japanese railroad, and who was going to marry the Korean army commander working for the Japanese, Lee Gwangi, but who secretly works for the Korean resistance movement as well; and Eon Nyeon (Lee Ho Jung) an incredibly resilient female assassin: these two women will meet for an eventual common purpose, but be dragged into a personal and nationalistic battle that will change their lives forever. Eon Nyeon is hired to assassinate Lee Yoon but finds she cannot do so, since she has grown to care for him. Will that mean the early end of her life when she is caught by those Japanese who had hired her to end his life? Nam Hee Shin also falls in love with Lee Yoon, and he will eventually have to make a choice which woman he cares for the most. All their lives are in danger, so whatever choice he makes might just end up resulting in only fleeting happiness.

What is most striking about this drama is the great depth given to the different characters: among these the female ones stand out as quite unique in K-drama history: they are women who are strategists, fighters and assassins, not wilting damsels in distress; women who don't let anything get in the way of their mission for achieving independence for Koreans, even in the most dangerous situations. Seohyun and Lee Ho Jung are perfect in their roles, intense and ferocious. And of course award winner Nam Gil Kim is extremely convincing in the part of Lee Yoon, a complex protagonist tormented by his past, but charismatic to the point of being able to start anew in life and gather a band of new loyal friends around him, who all have the same nationalistic mission to achieve as well.

Song Of The Bandits is a compelling action modern historical drama with great pace and verve, with superior cinematography and period backdrops, in which the violent fight scenes are masterfully created, and the characters' emotions superbly fine-tuned and evocative. The series doesn't drag like some historical dramas tend to do. I was never once bored watching it. Highly recommended if you are a fan of Nam Gil Kim and/or action / historical dramas. Enjoy!