Song of the Bandits gave a loud and clear disclaimer at the start of the series that it is entirely fictional, and any resemblance to anything is coincidental. The only similarity between the show and real life is that South Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945.
Before we talk politics, let us talk about the characters, the fashion, and their possible inspiration. There was a defining Western style throughout the series, even though the people of that time, especially the women, wore hanboks. However, the show was shot as a Western, and it did not really stay true to history. It was highly unlikely that Hee Sin had a job in the government, as women gained the constitutional right to work only in 1948. The entire aesthetic of the real world has been changed for Song of the Bandits. Keep in mind that we are not denying the existence of strong women or their contribution to the independence movement. But this fiction is not nearly as impressive as reality must have been.
Next is the matter of slavery, which the show repeatedly touched upon. It did not show any actual slaves, but people who were so previously, and that confuses us as to the ages of the people. The Korean “nobi” system, which is generally agreed to mean slavery, was ended in 1894. That is 26 years before the events of the show. This is confusing for us because it doesn’t give us a good read on the ages of the characters. Kim Nam Gil, Lee Hyun Wook, and Seohyun are in their 40s and 30s. We can estimate that the characters of Lee Yoon and Gwang Il must be in their early to late thirties at best.
It is entirely possible that their characters are in their 40s, but we cannot determine Seohyun’s age at all. Wasn’t it taboo for women to be unmarried beyond their early 20s? But she must at least be in her early 30s during Song of the Bandits, considering that when she met Lee Yoon at the ball, she was already a fully grown woman or at least someone whose teen years were ending. If this were real-life 1920s Joseon, she would not have been unmarried and be working at the same time. She would have been secretly carrying out her operations while being Gwang Il’s wife. That would mean that her love story with Lee Yoon is an extramarital affair. But this is not real life, and Song of the Bandits preferred to pretend that feminism had already taken root in the country, so this is the alternate storyline. Frankly, keeping it closer to the truth may have made for a grittier storyline because feminism is always an important topic in any struggle for independence. To see women making monumental changes while being considered insignificant could have made for a compelling plot. There is a reason we say that no one can fight the way women can, and it could have served the show well to tell actual women’s stories instead of taking the easy way out with what they did.
But coming to politics, which are talked about a lot in the show, Gando was a part of northeastern China and was home to many Koreans. Since Korea was under Japan, they insisted that the Koreans fall under their rule even though they were technically in a different country. We suppose the tenets of international law were not very polished at that point. As expected, China refused. On an off note, we are thinking of the memes that would lead to in today’s world. But coming back to the topic, Japan had a temporary win when it took over the region from 1907–1909 before letting go of it, as China made its rules and requirements very clear. This makes us think that the Japanese officers and bandits in Gando should have been Chinese for more historical accuracy.
Back then, the area was called Jiandao, which slowly turned to Gando because of the Koreans residing there. In the present day, it is called Yanbian because nobody wants the place to be associated with its Japanese history. Officially, the area is recognized as part of China, but surprisingly, groups in Korea think it should be recognized as a part of their country. The reasoning is that during the period between 1907 and 1909, when Japan had taken over Gando, deeming it Korean land, there had been a certain transfer of territory between the countries, which they are now claiming back. We are sure that there are some very intricate politics to it, and a better reading of history may give us that.
To give a brief account of the bandits, we read that the government of Joseon prohibited its people from going to northeastern China for many years. As a non-resident of Korea, we are connecting the dots from what we have read, but the surname ‘Han’ makes sense in this context. The Korean government stopped its citizens from going there because it did not want there to be a majority of Hans, which would create an imbalance of some powers. We are issuing a disclaimer that we could be wrong with our deduction about the surname here. However, it is a fact that the area remained underdeveloped, which explains why it was infested with bandits.
Lawlessness often leads to vigilantes and opportunists, and this was no different. It also matters that a lot of people living there had left behind famine and poverty. They did not have the option of righteousness to feed themselves. It looks like the writers of the show chose the perfect setting for their story. And since the migration happened in 1894, which was the year so many slaves were freed, it explains Seon Bok’s thriving business and influence in the city. Seeing how perfect the geographical casting was, the other departments decided to take liberty with the costumes and the language. We do not speak Korean or understand it, so our opinion is based on how we heard things, which is that it felt the same as any other Korean drama, meaning that there was no work on the dialect or inclusion of terms and phrases from the 1920s. But we could be easily wrong here. Overall, it is safe to say that Song of the Bandits is not a true story, but it has artfully included a sufficient amount of history in itself.