Song of the Bandits is the latest Korean series on Netflix, and it is safe to say that the show is starkly different from the usual Asian content that we are used to seeing on the platform. Essentially a fictional tale set against the backdrop of real history, the show presents an ex-Japanese soldier, Lee Yoon, and his attempt to fight for Korean independence in the region of Gando. Along with mentions of geopolitics and ethnic tension during the times, Song of the Bandits also features a Western style in its visuals, and the grand scale of it makes the show quite a thrilling watch.
Plot Summary: What Is The Series About?
Netflix’s Song of the Bandits features action in the 1920s, with a brief introduction from 1915. Beginning in 1905, Korea was under the rule of Japan, which led to vast flocks of Koreans having to flee their homeland and settle in the nearby regions of Yeonhaeju and Manchuria. A significant population had also settled in the region of Gando, in China, and this place in particular became a hotbed of Korean, or Joseon, persecution. Around this time, a man named Lee Yoon leaves the capital city of Gyongseong after receiving a mysteriously short letter from a contact in the Gando region.
Arriving at the destined village, Lee Yoon starts to seek out the person he has tried to find for the past few years. This individual, named Choi Chung-soo, initially seems to be a target of Lee, since the latter has associations with the army. With the help of a dear friend named Kim Seon-bok, Lee tracks down Chung-soo in a nearby village, where the latter man is leading a group of Korean independence fighters. The protagonist also finds himself in grave danger when a professional assassin named Eon Nyeoni tries to attack him. Although Nyeoni does not reveal who sent her, she does profess that someone had hired her to kill Lee. However, the protagonist now reveals that he has come to Gando only to confess about some past actions of his to Chung-soo, following which the elderly man is sure to kill him. Convinced by this, Nyeoni leaves Lee Yoon alive, not knowing yet that their paths are going to cross multiple times in the future.
What had Lee Yoon done in the past?
When Lee Yoon finally meets with Chung-soo, he opens up about the past actions that had kept haunting him for this long. After being orphaned as children, Lee Yoon and his brother were taken in by a rich Korean family of high status. The family kept the boys and treated them as their slaves, and even the young boy of the family, Lee Kwang-il, looked down upon Lee Yoon. Years later, after growing up, both Lee Yoon and Lee Kwang-il joined the Japanese army when the Japanese invaders came looking for Koreans to fight for their cause.
Despite having to fight against his own kind, Yoon accepted the offer and worked for the Japanese army, for he did not have any other option. The man still believed that the stories of atrocities faced by the Koreans at the hands of the invaders were untrue and made-up tales. However, six years before the present time, Yoon’s perception completely changed when he was assigned as a unit leader in the Japanese army at a place named Gurye. There were reports of Korean militant activity in the region, and so Yoon was given the responsibility of finding out more about these rebels. In fact, Chung-soo had been one of the leaders of the rebellion in this village as well, which is why Lee Yoon remembers his name. During this time, Yoon witnessed the vicious and inhuman attacks that the Japanese army unleashed on the helpless Koreans, torturing and brutally killing them without any remorse.
As the village and the rebel movement were completely destroyed and torn down, Lee Yoon decided to stand up for his countrymen and not be a mere puppet for the invaders. He turned against his own army unit, killing most of them while confronting the major and his Korean master, Lee Kwang-il. The two men had a face-off in which Yoon chose not to shoot and was instead shot in the arm by Kwang-il. For all this time following this incident, Yoon had been bearing the guilt of still serving his oppressors but had been secretly looking for Chung-soo as well.
Now, when he finds the rebel activist, Yoon leaves his post in the army, much to the anger of Kwang-il, and travels to Gando to admit to all of this. The man apologizes for his actions toward Chung-soo and expects the latter to kill him out of rage. However, Chung-soo is much more intelligent than to lose such a skilled ex-army man, and so the two now take a vow to start their own group to fight for Korean independence. Three other men will also join this group soon: Kang San-gun, a brave sharpshooter; Choraeng-yi, an exceptional performer of martial arts; and Geumsu, a heavy-built enforcer whose rage is his biggest strength. Since the Japanese government keeps a strict watch over Korean liberation groups, Lee Yoon and his band of mercenaries call themselves a group of bandits in the lawless wildlands of Gando.
How does the railroad fund robbery become central to the plot?
Early on in Song of the Bandits, the biggest heist attempted by the outlaws takes place when a railroad fund robbery becomes central, with more important characters introduced. A major railroad line was being planned by the Japanese government that would connect Gando to other, more accessible parts of Korea. Although this rail route would mean that the Japanese army could reach faster and wreak more havoc in the Gando region, the current situation before it gets built provides a different opportunity. Since construction of this nature demands a lot of money, a large sum of 200,000 won was to be transferred to the region by a railroad officer.
Information about this large amount of money reaches Kim Seon-bok, and she informs her friend Lee Yoon about it. Since Yoon and his group are now quite successful as fighters for Korean independence, they are also constantly in need of funds for their future plans. A stash of 200,000 won would be extremely useful for them, and so Yoon and Chung-soo decide that they will carry out a heist to steal the money. But information about this railroad fund also spreads across the place, even reaching a rival group of bandits led by Jang Ki-Ryong, a ruthless mercenary who kills anyone for money. Ki-Ryong and his group also have a reputation for working with Japanese authorities, who pay them to kill the Joseon, or Korean people, in the Gando region. Like Yoon, Ki-Ryong also now plans to steal the railroad’s money.
However, an even more complex robbery plan was already in the works, planned by the very railroad officer who was to bring the money. This officer, a woman named Nam Hee-Shin, was actually a secret supporter of the Korean Independence Army and all of the rebel movements in the country. Hee-Shin had been helping the rebels with information and plans, and now she and another rebel leader make an ultimate plan—to steal the railroad funds and give them to the Independence Army. Since Hee-Shin will be sent alone to Gando with the money and she cannot directly steal the money herself, they hire a different woman to do their job, and this happens to be the hired assassin, Eon Nyeoni. Hee-Shin had been living a double life of sorts till now, since the woman had joined the government job only so that she could find out ways to help the Independence Army.
Hee-Shin also has ties with the other characters, for she is the fiancée of the army major, Lee Kwang-il. In fact, the woman had known the protagonist, Lee Yoon, in the past as well, when the latter had not yet been sent away from the capital as part of the Japanese army. Lee Yoon and Hee-Shin had fallen in love with each other but had been separated by their starkly different lives.
Kwang-il finds out about this planned robbery, and he remains fixed on his servitude towards the Japanese. He tortures his own uncle for more information, but fails to find out that his fiancée is going to be the actual thief. As he prepares an army unit and moves to Gando to stop the crime, a much more layered plan is revealed to have been made.
Hee-Shin and Nyeoni actually convinced the branch manager of the bank, from where the money was to be transferred, to send empty trunks on the designated carriage and remove the money. The manager agreed, but he seemed to have his own plan of stealing the money for himself, which is quickly put to rest by Nyeoni as she kills him. As the carriage with the empty trunks is attacked by Lee Yoon and then Ki-Ryong, both of them find the trunks to be empty. Instead, it is Hee-Shin who is carrying the briefcase full of the money, and she eventually takes a train with Nyeoni to escape the place.
Lee Yoon and his gang rob the train, and at the same time, the Japanese army led by Kwang-il stops the train. A massive sandstorm hits the place, and in the chaos that ensues, Hee-Shin manages to escape with the money. She and Lee Yoon then come together, as the latter has recognized the woman as his lover, but he does not reveal his identity to her. Eventually, Hee-Shin is able to hand over the money to the Independence Army with the help of Yoon. The two also share a kiss after the man reveals who he is, but the desperate times do not allow for any relationship between them.
Why does Eon Nyeoni side with Lee Yoon?
The professional assassin Eon Nyeoni also has an unfortunate life story that drives her towards the blind violence that she wants her life’s ambition to be. When she was a young girl, Nyeoni’s parents were ruthlessly stoned and killed by villagers of the same Korean village, and even she was attacked and humiliated. After escaping from the place, she was taken in by Chung-soo, who raised her almost like a daughter, and then Nyeoni went on to become a hitman. She originally started with the plan of finding her parents’ killers and taking her revenge, and she also does not mind killing Koreans since her own country folk had murdered her parents.
During the sandstorm at the train station, Nyeoni gets shot and captured by Kwang-il. The army major threatens to kill her unless the hitman works for him. It was Kwang-il who had placed the first hit on Lee Yoon five years ago, and he now wants the woman to kill him, along with the perpetrator of the railroad fund robbery. Kwang-il does not yet know who this perpetrator is, but he gets the idea that the individual is now being helped by Lee Yoon. Nyeoni works according to this plan for some time until she gets caught by the police authorities in the Gando region. The treacherous police officer, Ooka, wants to publicly execute Nyeoni, and in order to save herself, she tells the man to have a word with the army major. Nyeoni is confident that Kwang-il will order the police to release her, but the major betrays her completely, as he refuses to know her in order to save himself.
Although Ooka attempts to execute Nyeoni, the woman somehow escapes this fate, and once she is free, her only plan is to kill Kwang-il as revenge for his betrayal. Since both she and Yoon’s group now share the same target, they decide to work together, and eventually, Nyeoni becomes a part of the gang, fighting for the cause of Korean independence.
What was the plan made by the Japanese in the end?
During Song of the Bandits‘s ending, Lee Yoon and his gang have to break out of the prison in the town of Myeongjyeong, and in order to do so, they kill a large number of Japanese soldiers. Not only is this a heavy loss of men for the army, but it is also a great disrespect, as the Joseon people, whom they considered lowly, had killed so many of their men. This enrages the army superior, Katayama, and he is seen to have made a plan of retaliation against the Koreans. This plan, to eradicate and butcher all Koreans in the Gando region, is found by Kwang-il, and the man decides to take it away with him.
This plan to persecute the Koreans cannot be executed directly since the region is under the ownership of China. Therefore, the Japanese army cannot simply march into the region and carry out any operation. Instead, Katayama now hires the bandit leader Jang Ki-Ryong to go to the region and mercilessly kill the Japanese police and army officials. This attack is reported by Katayama to his reporters as an evil act by the Koreans. In response, the Japanese government told the Chinese administration that Korean rebel groups hiding in the area had to be hunted down by them, and Katayama’s plan was ultimately approved.
In this while, Kwang-il returns to the capital with the documents of this attack and visits his fiancée, Hee-Shin. That night, while Kwang-il pretends to be asleep, he sees the woman go through his files and remove the document about the Joseon persecution. He also appoints a spy to follow Hee-Shin the next day, and through him, he finds out that she is actually a secret helper of the Korean Independence Army. However, Kwang-il does not make this information public, and instead, he marries Hee-Shin, as if he is still unaware of what her real identity is.
On the other side, Lee Yoon had come to the capital to see his lover again, but instead, it is the rebel army leader who meets with him and informs him about the horrible persecution of the Joseon people that is soon to follow in Gando. Lee Yoon immediately takes a train back to the place, and Song of the Bandits ends with no certain result, perhaps intending to return for a second season. The only certainty, shown in the last scene of the series, is that Chung-soo and the bandit group keep fighting off the Japanese army as much as they can.
What can we expect from season 2?
Based on how the first season of Netflix’s Song of the Bandits ends, the show might return for a second season if it can get approved by the streaming platform. The most important matter that Season 1 does not deal with is the Japanese army’s persecution of the Joseon people in Gando, which will surely be resisted or avenged by Lee Yoon and his bandit group. Along with this, the characters can also be expected to go through more twists and changes, particularly Lee Kwang-il, the Korean man who is still passionately serving the Japanese oppressors against his own countrymen.
The fact that Kwang-il marries Hee-Shin despite finding out about her secret allegiance with the rebels means that the army major must be making some other plan. Hee-Shin’s own decision to marry the high-ranking officer also seems to be so that she can help the rebels even more, and whether that happens can be seen. Finally, Kwang-il’s trusted associate in the army, Tae-ju, is seen overhearing the entire matter in the end, and what he does with the information about Hee-Shin will also be seen in Song of the Bandits Season 2, if it does arrive in the future.