Hymn of Death: Episodes 1-2
A few months ago, SBS aired this short three-hour drama about the tragic love story between the first Korean opera singer and a stage drama writer during the Japanese occupation. It got some press attention for being dark but lovely, and for addressing some serious subjects, so we thought we’d go back and recap this small but important show. The plot moves quickly, as it has a limited time in which to cover a five-year romance, but so far I find the show absolutely gorgeous.
August 4th, 1926, 4:00 a.m.
A sailor hears music playing from a ferry cabin, but nobody answers his knock. He lets himself in to find an empty room with some pictures and a man’s watch on the dresser, but what gets his attention is a note sitting on a suitcase.
The short note says, “I am terribly sorry, but please send my luggage back home.” The sailor rushes to the ship’s deck, but all he finds are two pairs of shoes, a man’s and a woman’s. He leans his lantern out over the water, but there’s nothing to be seen.
Tokyo, 1921, five years earlier.
A man reads a script out loud; then decides that it’s worthy of being their first performance, and the anxious writers rejoice. It’s the last of three scripts to be chosen for their Korean theatre tour, which will raise money for the Dongwoohee Theatre group as well as contribute to the development of Korean art.
The leader of the group is English literature student KIM WOO-JIN (Lee Jong-seok). Another member, HONG HAE-SUNG (Oh Eui-shik), hobbles into the room in a dress and heels, whining about being cast as a woman. Fellow writer HONG NAM-PA (Lee Ji-hoon) says tentatively that there is someone else who can play the part…
We cut to a woman, YOON SHIM-DEOK (Shin Hye-sun), a Korean opera singer studying at the Tokyo Music School. She sings “Un bel di vedremo” from Madame Butterfly in a high, clear voice, but her voice teacher stops her.
Professor Ueno asks Shim-deok to interpret the last couple of lines, so she recites, “I will wait for him with my unwavering trust.” Professor Ueno says that Shim-deok is singing the words of longing too cheerfully, and she asks if Shim-deok has ever yearned for a lover. Shim-deok admits that she hasn’t. Professor Ueno tells her that her songs must convey sincerity, and that someday she hopes Shim-deok truly understands the lyrics.
After her lesson, Nam-pa finds Shim-deok and walks with her. He tells her about their theatre group, which was created by Korean students, and how they’ve been invited to perform in Korea during summer break. They want to raise enough money to build a hall, while promoting new plays and Western music to the Korean people.
Shim-deok thinks it sounds dangerous, and she’s not sure she wants to be involved. Nam-pa gives her the address and asks her to just come by and see what she thinks. She decides to go, but as she’s about to walk into the room, she hears a melodious voice and stops to listen:
Watch. Watch how love takes from you. The moment you underestimate love as nothing but a gentle strength, you have made a mistake. Love is something you use to your advantage. To love is to take unsparingly.
Recognizing the words, Shim-deok steps into the room and finds Woo-jin. She says that she disagrees with the author, because true love is about giving, not taking. She asks Woo-jin why he’s reading a Japanese book in Korean, but he says that he’ll only answer after she explains why she barged in on him.
Flustered and annoyed, Shim-deok apologizes for interrupting and turns to leave. Nam-pa arrives and introduces them to each other, so Woo-jin holds out a hand to shake, but Shim-deok haughtily declines.
Woo-jin says that he’s heard Shim-deok is a talented actress, and he asks her to perform with them. Before he even finishes his sentence, Shim-deok says she doesn’t have the time. She starts to leave, but Woo-jin asks why she’s not willing to do this for her country.
Shim-deok whirls back around and retorts that that’s exactly why she won’t do it — she was just barely able to come study with the government’s money. She asks Woo-jin what happens if she fails to become a famous soprano because of his show, so Woo-jin rescinds his offer, saying that he didn’t expect a music major to be good at acting anyway.
That raises Shim-deok’s hackles, so she snaps that she’ll do it under two conditions: she’ll only sing, and if it gets dangerous, she’ll quit immediately. The other troupe members are skeptical, but Woo-jin says that singing will enhance the shows.
That night, Woo-jin gets a letter from his father, like he does every day. It’s filled with money, and the letter tells him firmly that since his father is allowing him to study English literature like he wanted, that when he’s finished, he expects Woo-jin to come home and live the life his father chooses.
The next day Shim-deok sings for the theatre troupe, leaving most of them with unhinged jaws — all except Woo-jin, who sits reading with his back to her. As she sings, Shim-deok flicks her eyes in his direction several times, but he never turns around.
When the song ends, all Woo-jin says about it is for the pianist, Ki-joo, to make it more cheerful next time. He pointedly doesn’t mention Shim-deok’s singing and instead introduces Kyosuke, the Japanese student who will be helping Woo-jin direct the play.
Shim-deok’s insistence on only singing leaves poor Hae-sung till playing the female role, but Woo-jin tells him to suck it up or he’ll give him a worse job, ha. After rehearsal, Nam-pa invites Shim-deok to dinner, clearly interested in her, but she declines and follows Woo-jin out to pick a bone with him.
He’s gone, so she heads to a nearby restaurant to eat, and she finds Woo-jin also there. The tables are full so Shim-deok is forced to sit next to Woo-jin, who orders another bowl of noodles. Shim-deok snaps that she can order for herself, and Woo-jin deadpans that it’s for him, so she starts to order the same thing and he interrupts, “Just kidding, it’s for you.” HAHA, I love his cheek, but Shim-deok looks like she’s trying to kill him with her brain.
She embarrasses herself by trying to take a huge bite of noodles, then spitting it back out when it burns her mouth. Woo-jin wordlessly hands her his water cup, so Shim-deok takes a dignified sip. She asks why he left rehearsal so fast, but Woo-jin just says he was hungry.
He gets up to leave, but Shim-deok still has something to say so she grabs his arm, having just shoved another huge mouthful of noodles in her face. Woo-jin looks flustered by her touch, but he hides his reaction and waits while she eats.
Shim-deok finally gets to ask Woo-jin why he thinks she doesn’t care about her country, but he says he doesn’t think that. She asks why he’s doing a play in Korea when they already lost their country to the Japanese occupation over ten years ago, and Western music and plays won’t help people with no power.
Woo-jin surprises her by agreeing, but he adds that he’s trying to hold onto his country in his own way, and show through his play that their spirit is still alive. He thinks Shim-deok probably sings for the same reason, but she changes the subject.
She asks why he commented on everyone’s performance but hers. Woo-jin says that he didn’t need to comment, because her song was already beautiful. He also answers her question as to why he was reading a Japanese book in Korean: “So as not to forget that I’m Korean.”
He abruptly gets up to pay, and Shim-deok smiles at his back, muttering to herself, “Why didn’t you say that earlier, Kim Woo-jin?” She gets distracted watching Woo-jin at their next rehearsal, and she grows even more intrigued when Ki-joo tells her that he almost single-handedly bankrolls the theatre troupe because of his passion for plays.
Shim-deok tosses and turns in bed that night, and she grows anxious when Woo-jin doesn’t come to rehearsal for two days in a row. She’s told that he’s sick and will be back in a few days, so she visits his boarding house. She finds him sleeping in a sparse room with books on the floor, so she puts them on his desk. Under the books she finds something Woo-jin wrote:
As time goes by, tears stream down because of the wound that can’t be healed. Unable to bear it, I cry. But why does it sit deep as if there’s a fire burning inside me?
If I were a child, and cried in pain, my mother would call for a doctor. If I were a child, my mother would bring me cold water for my burning heart. If I were a child and was sick, a good night’s sleep would wash it away. However, since I am not a child, the wound keeps digging deeper inside. Ah, if only I were a child. -Soosan
Suddenly, Woo-jin asks what Shim-deok is doing.
Shim-deok tells Woo-jin that she brought him some porridge, but Woo-jin sees that she was reading his poem and tells her to leave. Shim-deok says she’ll go when it stops raining, lying that she doesn’t have an umbrella. Woo-jin offers to lend his umbrella to her, and she says weakly that she doesn’t like borrowing things.
She’s disappointed when Woo-jin says it’s not raining anymore, but she reluctantly goes, and Woo-jin smiles as he watches her grab her bright red umbrella on her way out, hee. He doesn’t care for porridge, but he eats Shim-deok’s anyway.
Woo-jin returns to rehearsal the next day, saying that he got better fast “thanks to a special treat from someone,” and he catches Shim-deok’s pleased little grin. They walk together afterward, and Shim-deok says that she heard Woo-jin gets sick every year around this time.
He says he takes a few days off for his mother’s death anniversary, but he tells people he’s sick to avoid questions. He tells Shim-deok that his mother died when he was five, and his father remarried three times. He barely has any memories of his mother, so he tries to hang onto the ones he has, which is why he takes those few days off.
He tells Shim-deok not to feel special that he’s telling her this, he just didn’t want her to think he was really sick. She says that having someone to yearn for you is a happy feeling, so his mother must be very happy.
She tells Woo-jin that his poem was incredible and says he should write plays, too. She notices that he’s gone very quiet and asks if he doesn’t want to write plays. Woo-jin turns to look at her and says, “I like (them).” The phrase also sounds like, “I like (you),” and Shim-deok grows flustered.
During another rehearsal, the troupe is interrupted by the Japanese police, who burst in and demand to know if they’re all Korean. Woo-jin say bravely that they are, in Korean, and when the officer tells him to speak in the native language, he says Korean is his native language.
The officer points his gun at Woo-jin’s head and orders him to speak in Japanese, but Kyosuke intervenes and lies that Woo-jin’s Japanese isn’t very good. Thankfully it works, and the officer explains that they’re here to see if the troupe is part of a Korean subversive group plotting against the Japanese government.
They search the room, disrespectfully flinging books and scripts everywhere, but they don’t find anything. Before the police leave, the officer warns the troupe that they’ll be brutally punished if they make any trouble.
The troupe holds a meeting to decide whether to continue their play. Ki-joo admits that she’s scared and wants to stop, and Hae-sung says that putting on a play in Korean is meaningful, but not worth endangering themselves. Woo-jin says that won’t happen, but Nam-pa points out that they do have a connection to the association of subversive Koreans in Japan, who originally suggested the idea of doing the play.
Shim-deok shocks them all by calling them cowards, after they’ve been so passionate about performing a play for their own people in their own language. She tells them to trust Woo-jin and cheer up, and her attitude is infectious.
Woo-jin and Shim-deok walk together after rehearsal again, and Shim-deok admits that she thought Woo-jin was reckless, to rebel against something when he can’t win. She says that now she doesn’t think that way, because it’s the effort and the hope that count. She thanks Woo-jin for changing how she thinks, and he thanks her for recognizing his sincerity.
Over time, Woo-jin and Shim-deok stop hiding their affection for each other. Rehearsals continue uninterrupted, and soon it’s time for their Korean tour. On the ferry to Busan, Shim-deok tells Woo-jin that this reminds her of the day she left Korea, excited to be able to study singing. She says that she’s just as excited today, because now she’ll be singing in her homeland.
Everything goes well with their performances, and the troupe encounters no problems. On the train to the final city on the tour, Woo-jin and Shim-deok share a seat. Shim-deok falls asleep against the window, and Woo-jin reaches out to her, but he pulls back without touching her.
The troupe performs their play about a Korean malcontent in Japan, and unfortunately, there are some Japanese police in the audience, looking pretty angry. Soon it’s time for Shim-deok to sing, and she asks nervously asks Woo-jin to stay close backstage.
She sounds lovely, and Woo-jin watches her sing with a sweet smile on his face. Nam-pa also watches, looking pretty smitten himself, until he sees Woo-jin’s expression.
Afterward, the troupe goes out to a swing club to celebrate. Woo-jin and troupe member Myung-hee talk about their plans after graduation in three years — Woo-jin tells Myung-hee that he’ll be a great writer, and Myung-hee says sadly that he wishes Woo-jin could be a writer, too.
Later, the atmosphere at the club has slowed down. Shim-deok works up her courage to ask Woo-jin to dance, but Nam-pa steps in front of her and asks her to dance with him first. Woo-jin and Myung-hee are still talking about the tour, and Woo-jin says he’ll miss the time they spent together, though he’s watching Shim-deok as he says it.
As they dance, Nam-pa asks Shim-deok if she only likes Woo-jin, or if she’s in love with him. He tells her that either way, she should stop her feelings, or she’ll only get hurt. Shim-deok steps out of his arms and says she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but as Nam-pa is about to explain, the Japanese police bust into the club.
They demand to speak to the leader of the theatre troupe, and when Woo-jin stands, they arrest him. Myung-hee learns that Woo-jin probably won’t be released for a few days, and that this is because of the line in their play where the lead says, “Ten years ago, we had freedom. But today, in this land, freedom no longer exists.”
Hae-sung argues that the script was approved, and the line was only speaking the truth. Nam-pa says softly that they’re being used as an example of what can happen when Koreans dare to talk about freedom.
At the police station, Woo-jin suffers repeated beatings at the hands of the officer who arrested him. When he’s finally released, he’s bruised and bloody, but mostly okay. Shim-deok is waiting for him at the station gates, and she cries when she sees how he’s been treated.
Kim Woo-jin’s journal, Trace of the Heart, entry date November 26, 1921:
Passionately, I listened to the curses put on my fate. She was the only safe haven in my life besieged by the Devil.
Just lovely. I already adore everything about this show — the music, the costumes, the cinematography, and especially the casting (fun fact… Lee Jong-seok, Shin Hye-sun, and Lee Ji-hoon were in School 2013 together). For a show with such a sad, honestly foreshadowed conclusion, it had a lot of surprisingly light and sweet moments, which was nice because I’d worried I would spend the whole show thinking about how Woo-jin and Shim-deok’s romance ends. Instead I found myself just enjoying how sweet they are together, and appreciating how these two immensely talented people made the most of what little time they had.
I went into this knowing that it’s a true story with a tragic ending, but I didn’t know how tragic until I saw the first few minutes of this episode. I’m actually glad that the show tells us right up front what to expect, for two reasons. One, it’s terribly sad, but I won’t be anxious as I watch the remaining episodes because I already know exactly what will happen. And two, showing us Woo-jin and Shim-deok’s end gives all of their interactions an interesting melancholy flavor — we know they will experience an epic romance, but the knowledge of their final moments together colors events in a sad yet somehow lovely way.
I don’t know a lot about Woo-jin and Shim-deok’s true-life love story, but in the drama, their initial bickering was so much fun that I was eating it up with a spoon. It cracked me up how Woo-jin would deliberately wind Shim-deok up, and she would fall for it every time despite knowing better. I don’t blame Woo-jin, because Shim-deok is gorgeous when she’s all snapping eyes and pouty lips, and luckily for Shim-deok, Woo-jin’s cheeky smirk is deadly. Also, they’re both incredibly talented, and I know from personal experience that to artistically talented people, there’s nothing sexier than someone else with artistic talent. Once they got past their differences and started being nicer to each other, it’s no wonder they began falling hard.
Unfortunately, with only three hours in which to tell this story, the plot quickly moved from the cute falling-in-love stage to include some of the darker realities of the time period. The Japanese were occupying Korea, and there was little freedom to be had, as Woo-jin’s play pointed out. I have no doubt that this will continue to be a theme throughout the remaining episodes, and that it will be very hard to watch at times, but hopefully Woo-jin and Shim-deok’s love will shine some happy light into this very dark era.
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