Song of the Bandits: Episode 1 (First Impressions)
Netflix’s latest series brings us into the past, into a period of lawlessness and desperation where “kill or be killed” is the motto of the day. Attempting to pull us into a sweeping tale, though, the drama lacks any backing to get us emotionally invested, and the first episode moves both far too fast, and far too slow.
Editor’s note: This is an Episode 1 review only. For a place to chat about the entire drama, visit the Drama Hangout.
Song of the Bandits is here, and if there is one thing I appreciated from start to end of our premiere episode, it was the gorgeous art direction. Let me stare at those stagecoaches some more, and sit inside with our characters and weather some sandstorms! But what our drama had in spades (art direction, cinematography, etc.) it lacked in any actual grounded emotion, as it relies on a lot of “telling” to introduce our hero and get us acquainted.
We first meet LEE YOON (Kim Nam-gil) when he’s in a drunken and depressed haze. But lo, news comes that the mysterious person he’s been looking for has finally been located. Suddenly, his torpor gives way to action, and he’s ready to leave town, and he’ll bust his way out if he has to. And he kinda does, because his “friend” — a.k.a. the man who once owned him, and with whom he’s served in the Japanese military — is fuming mad that he wants to move on. This chingu is LEE KWANG-IL (Lee Hyun-wook), and his rage against Yoon is only just beginning. Because why be bad when you can be Bad with a capital B?
Before Yoon leaves town, he says a silent goodbye from the street, gazing up into a window where we see a yet-unnamed woman (Seohyun). With heartbreak and longing in his eyes (gah, Kim Nam-gil, stop doing that to me!) we can tell he was once in love with her (eh, and still is), but things didn’t go as planned. Which is pretty much our hero’s entire life experience, as we’ll come to learn. He’s carrying a heavy burden of guilt and self-hate, but we first have to follow him to a settlement in Gando (a.k.a. Jiandao) to get any answers.
It’s here we meet the illustrious KIM SUN-BOK (the delightful Cha Chung-hwa) who is like an older sister to him. They were once serfs together (*waves at Kwang-il*), but now Sun-bok is a wealthy arms dealer and thus, relatively secure in the lawlessness that is life in Gando and the settlement city of Myeongjeong.
But Yoon isn’t there for Sun-bok — he’s there for a guy named CHOI CHUNG-SOO (Yoo Jae-myung who looks magnificent in a sangtu (topknot)). Chung-soo was once the general of the independence fighters, but is now living in hiding, scraping by with his Joseon cohort.
Up until this point, Yoon has done a whole lot of looking miserable and guilty, and we finally learn that in his duties with Kwang-il in the Imperial army, he was responsible for the slaughter of the freedom fighters and their families. And he’s been living in misery for those actions ever since. Of course, the story would be too simple if Chung-soo just killed him with his bow and arrow in retribution after Yoon confesses this fact, so instead, he tells him to suffer and live. Which is rather what they’re all doing. Eventually, as the episode ends with a surge of the plot to come, the two plan to gather all the desperate Joseon men from those parts and form a bandit group to fight back against the brutality.
It’s all well and good — beautifully shot and beautifully acted — but it’s so strangely hard to connect with emotionally. I know that Yoon is suffering greatly, but seeing the slaughter via flashback (omg those bayonets) is graphic, but not at all gripping. I only believe in Yoon’s misery because Kim Nam-gil is expert at carrying his characters’ history around with him, not because the script did a compelling job of articulating said history.
That’s where my biggest criticism comes in: the screenplay moves as if we’re watching a two-hour movie, not a nine-hour drama, and languorous scenes of dialogue are juxtaposed with super fast and flashily-cut action sequences.
For example, there’s a random woman who appears in Chung-soo’s camp — the yet unnamed character played by Lee Ho-jung. Within about four minutes of screen time, Yoon has not only sussed out that she’s an assassin not a refugee, but had a massive stand-off with her, full of quips, firearms, and near-death scenarios. It’s meant to be quick and arresting, but for me, this sort of pacing leaves me feeling like the story is hollow.
Song of the Bandits has been tossed about as potentially comparable to Tale of the Nine Tailed 1938. Sure, there’s a decade(ish) of time between them, but both seemed to go for the action-heavy, fun-having sharpshooter angle. And indeed, after watching, it’s hard not to compare the two with all their similarities of setting.
But while Tale of the Nine Tailed 1938 took a light touch and cared more about being entertaining than realistic or serious, Song of the Bandits feels too serious about itself to be truly fun. As a consequence, when we actually hit the fun sequences (anything with Cha Chung-hwa or any of Kim Nam-gil’s epic shootouts) they feel like a brief foray into a different drama.
I don’t know about you, but I came for the “wild action spectacle” I was promised, so I’d actually rather have a fun tale of sharpshooting vigilantes straight through, and just skip the other parts that are weighing it down. In its favor, though, this episode was purely for getting all the players on the stage and in the right mindset, so if the drama stops trying to force feed emotional weight and just leans into the desperado angle, then I’ll be having fun.
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