Netflix has just released a nine-part series called Song of the Bandits is an intense South Korean action drama that delves deep into the historical massacres that took place against the chaotic backdrop of China in the 1920s. The narrative revolves around the Korean kingdom of Joseon, which was colonized by Japan during the 1920s. The people of Joseon were forced to relocate from their homeland to settle in China. A Korean soldier, Lee Yoon, who was enlisted in the Japanese army, could not take the Japanese army’s ongoing violence against his own countrymen, so leaving his position in the army, he took up a life of crime, becoming a bandit, to stand up against the violence.
Who was Lee Yoon?
Episode 1 of Song of the Bandits opened by mentioning the tumultuous events taking place in 1905. The Korean empire was forced to sign a treaty with Japan, while several Koreans formed righteous armies. Japan’s Militia Annihilation Campaign had forced the soldiers to retreat to Manchuria and Yeonhaeju. The scene opened in Joseon, where a retired soldier from the Japanese army, Lee Yoon, was taking refuge in a hideout. Meanwhile, a kid brought him a letter, which was written by his friend and well-wisher, Kim Seon-bok. She informed Lee that she had managed to find the address of the man Lee had been looking for all along.
The address was Taepyeong-Dong, in North Gando, China. However, before heading toward his destination, Lee was invited to join a ceremony that was organized by the Japanese Army in order to honor him. This event was hosted by the army unit leader, Lee Gawan II, who was also the master of Lee Yoon. But, without informing Lee Gawan II, Lee Yoon made an adamant decision not to join the gathering. It infuriated Lee Gawan II, who had believed Lee Yoon to be a mere puppet of his, compelled to abide by his commands, but Lee’s contrasting behavior and audacious attitude immensely disappointed Lee Gawang II. He took Lee to a bar and tried to persuade him to rejoin the force, but Lee had already made up his mind that he would not follow Gawang’s orders anymore. It enraged Gawan-II, who went so far as to pull out his gun to kill Lee, but he couldn’t pull the trigger as the security personnel intervened to stop him.
As Lee Yoon went out and walked down the path all alone, he stopped near a house and looked out the window to catch a glimpse of a woman who seemed to be his lover. However, leaving all the emotional attachments he once had behind, Lee finally headed toward his destination, Taepyeong-Dong.
Who was Lee looking for?
On his journey, Lee Yoon met Kim Seon-bok, who used to be a slave woman, but her status changed after she started selling weapons to the bandits and Chinese warlords and got massively wealthy. She welcomed Yoon and talked about the bandits in Taepyeong-dong. These bandits were killing the settlers in Joseon and getting money from the Japanese people. Even a few miles later, in a township where Seon-bok and Yoon had some food, they witnessed a group of bandits led by Jang Ki-Ryong storming the area and killing a lot of people right in front of their eyes. Lee didn’t intervene to stop them because he didn’t want to be killed at a bandit’s hands, believing this wasn’t what fate had in store for him. In the midst of the gathering crowd, Lee suddenly spotted a woman looking at him, but in the blink of an eye, she vanished.
Lee Gawang’s violent attitude towards Lee was still tormenting him, as he knew Lee Gawang II wouldn’t just let him get away with everything so easily. Meanwhile, Lee woke up from a nightmare and spotted another group of bandits killing a man near his inn. The bandit leader looked at him ferociously and left with his gang.
The next day, Lee headed to Taepyeong-Dong, bidding his farewell to Seon-bok. On a stormy night, Lee Yoon finally reached his destination, but upon his arrival, Choong-soo, the village head, held him at knife point, believing Lee was a bandit or someone from the Japanese army. However, as Lee introduced him as a Korean man, Choong-soo welcomed him into his house and offered him food. It was Choong-soo that Lee was looking for and wanted to have a conversation with. He was under immense pressure to say something to Choong-soo, but before he could speak, a villager asked Choong-soo to come out and settle the matter. Meanwhile, Lee found that a woman he had spotted earlier in the town was staying at Choong-soo’s house. Choong-soo informed Lee that the woman was Eon-nyeni, who had left Joseon after losing her entire family to the Japanese army, just like the other settlers there.
After Choong-soo’s departure, Eon-nyeni showed Lee the way to his hut, but Lee recognized that the woman was pretending to be a settler while she was a secret informant. Eon-nyeni revealed her identity as someone who was hired to kill Lee, resulting in a fierce altercation between the two of them. But Lee finally revealed his motive to come here and decided not to fight with Eon-nyeni. Lee stated that he was in the Japanese army and responsible for a lot of deaths of his own countrymen in Joseon, including the family members of Choong-soo. Therefore, he had come to apologize to Choong-soo, and in return, he would like to embrace his death at the hands of Choong-soo. Knowing the reason for Lee Yoon’s arrival in the village, Eon-nyeni spared his life and left the area. However, before she departed, she revealed that she had been recruited by Lee Gawan II to eliminate Lee Yoon.
Why did Lee Yoon want to be killed by Choong-soo?
Lee couldn’t wait any longer and approached Choong-soo to have a conversation with him. Choong-soo took Lee inside his house to hear his concern. Lee revealed that it was he who was responsible for the bloody massacre that claimed the lives of Choong-soo’s family members in Gurye. It was Lee who was enlisted in the Japanese Militia round-up campaign and was working as a puppet for the unit leader, Lee Gawang II. He was forced to research the righteous army of the Koreans and uncover Choong-soo’s identity, family, and location. As Lee was forced to hand that information over to the army, they ran a shootout in Gurye that claimed a great many innocent lives. Lee intervened to save them, but his protest got him isolated. As he finally realized that staying silent wasn’t the proper answer to the violence, he chose to take out the Japanese officials to save the life of an infant in Gurye.
However, when Lee Gawang II and some of his colleagues found out about the betrayal committed by Lee, they pointed their guns at him. But Lee didn’t back down from killing those officials as well, except for Lee Gawang II, who didn’t want to kill Lee in the first place, but what he did was even more treacherous. He saved Lee’s life and his position in the army, and in exchange for doing him a favor, he demanded Lee remain his puppet forever. Knowing all this, Choong-soo lost his composure. He recognized Lee was repenting for his actions, but he couldn’t bring himself to forgive him. As he took up his bow and arrow and took a step forward to kill him, a group of bandits attacked the village in the meantime. They orchestrated a bloodbath and even kidnapped the women of the village.
Some of the villagers died at the hands of the bandits, and some of them committed suicide after losing their loved ones. But even though Lee witnessed it all, amid the violence, he couldn’t bring himself to confront those bandits. He was left traumatized by the chaos and deaths going on around him. But it served as another pang of guilt in his psyche. So he decided that in order to get rid of the bandits, he would have to take on the role of a savior for the villagers. He headed back to the town where Seon-bok stayed, and with all the money he had in his possession, he bought weapons from her.
Taking on the role of a mysterious “Guardian Grim Reaper,” he became a masked messiah for the villagers and started killing the bandits who were responsible for the violence and death in the villages of Gando. Over time, seeing Lee’s dedication to his duty to save his countrymen from the clutches of the bandits, Choong-soo embraced him in his community and praised him for his valor and kindness for his own country. Taking all the bandits out of Gando, Lee even managed to free the kidnapped girls and take them back to their homes. However, this marked only the beginning of Lee’s journey as a “Guardian Grim Reaper,” and probably in the next episodes, we might anticipate more violence on his way. We can anticipate more enemies that he would likely eliminate to free his own people in the forthcoming episodes.