Flash Review: Hymn Of Death [Mini Series]

This one’s been on my list for a long time, because everyone who’s seen it, has recommended it enthusiastically, saying that the show is excellent, as are Lee Jong Seok and Shin Hye Sun, who star in this.

However, I’ve been dragging my feet on actually pressing “play,” because this one is billed as a tragedy. I mean, it’s kinda there in the title, isn’t it? It just sounded very.. heavy, to me.

Now that I’ve finally put my brave girl pants on and checked it out for myself, I do agree that this one is very solid, and worth a look, if you feel you have a bit of fortitude for a tragic (true) love story, and 3 drama hours to spend.

Psst: Link to watch is at the end of the review!

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

In the 1920s, during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, playwright Woo Jin (Lee Jong Seok) meets opera soprano Shim Deok (Shin Hye Sun), and they soon develop feelings for each other.

This is inspired by the true story of Kim Woo Jin and Yun Shim Deok, whose fate ended tragically.

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS

Here are a few things that I think would be helpful to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:

1. The development of our story, and our main pair’s relationship, can feel rather fast.

I attribute this to Show’s relatively short running time, which is probably why Show can’t afford to spend too much time teasing out the burgeoning bond between Woo Jin and Shim Deok.

2. It helps to remember that this is based on a true story.

When I found the relationship development a little uneven or fast, I reminded myself that this is based on real people’s lives, and that helped a lot.

Like, sure, things could have happened this way for these people, even if I feel it’s a little rushed. The truth basically has the upper hand here, heh.

Plus, the performances by Lee Jong Seok and Shin Hye Sun really work to ground this story and make the relationship pop, despite certain bits feeling rather rushed.

3. Some characters, particularly Japanese ones, aren’t portrayed as being very nice.

That’s par for the course for a story with this setting, but I thought I should mention it anyway.

If you struggle with this, it kinda helps to think of the less-nice characters are caricatures rather than as real people.

4. Trigger warnings 

I don’t know if it’s clear from Show’s premise or the synopsis, but I thought I ought to mention that [SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ] there is suicide and infidelity in our story. [END SPOILER]

SPOTLIGHT ON OUR MAIN PAIR

Lee Jong Seok as Woo Jin

All in all, I thought Lee Jong Seok was very well-cast for the role of Woo Jin.

Woo Jin’s a scholar at heart, with passion and idealism to spare, and I feel that Lee Jong Seok’s brings out that vibe really well. He totally looks the part of the sheltered scholar, who’s conflicted between his personal dreams and his duty to his family.

Like I alluded to earlier, his performance has a good amount of emotional heft, which helps to ground this story, and make everything flow a little better over any humps and bumps that might come from squeezing this story into just 3 hours of screen time.

Shin Hye Sun as Shim Deok

I will say that in terms of characterization, I found Shim Deok’s characterization one of the more uneven ones, in our story.

In the beginning, she comes across as rather brusque and almost rude, but it’s not very long, before she’s singing a completely different tune. That felt rather rushed and therefore unnatural, to my eyes.

However, Shin Hye Sun’s delivery helps to sell it, even when my brain protests that this doesn’t feel all that plausible, and my lens adjustment, in reminding myself that this was a real person and this was her real experience, helped as well.

Also, Shin Hye Sun’s just an excellent actor, so she makes Shim Deok’s journey come alive, such that by the end, I’d kind of forgotten that I’d ever found Shim Deok brusque or at all unlikable.

Woo Jin and Shim Deok together

As you might have picked up on in my earlier sections, I wasn’t completely sold on the early interactions between Woo Jin and Shim Deok going from so terse, to becoming so warm.

But again, like I said, remembering that Show doesn’t have that much time to work with, helps, and both Lee Jong Seok and Shin Hye Sun sell it so well, that it wasn’t that long, before I was able to believe the emotion in their mutual regard for each other.

[SPOILER ALERT]

There is that troublesome thing, where we realize that Woo Jin’s already married when he meets for Shim Deok and falls for her.

It’s hard to argue that Woo Jin and Shim Deok do the right thing, when they eventually give in to their feelings and embark on a romantic relationship, because it’s still technically adultery, but I do appreciate that we see Woo Jin and Shim Deok try to do the right thing.

When Woo Jin first realizes he has strong feelings for Shim Deok, instead of acting on those feelings and kissing her like he’s poised to do, he pulls away, and instead, invites her to his family home, along with the rest of the theater troupe, so that she will learn that he has a wife.

Could he have told her in a different, more direct manner? Sure. But that’s the way he chose to make it known to her. And, I figure it’s more important that he does tell her, rather than how he chooses to share that information.

Also to their credit, they both turn away from each other, and try to live their lives as they’ve been prescribed to do, for the next 5 years.

When they do eventually come together again, and give in to their feelings for each other, it feels quite innocent, in that they mostly exchange letters, and meet each other occasionally, when they miss each other too much to bear.

On this point, we don’t actually see Woo Jin and Shim Deok engage in much skinship at all, over the course of the entire story, save for the odd handhold, and a single kiss (or maybe two, I’m not so sure 😅).

The overall message is pretty clear, that theirs is a connection of soulmates, and not a spontaneous, tawdry affair.

[END SPOILER]

Special shout-out:

Park Seon Im as Jum Hyo [SPOILERS]

Even though Jum Hyo doesn’t enjoy all that much screen time in our story, I just wanted to give her a shout-out, because I was quite struck by her predicament.

Jum Hyo’s beautiful, dutiful, patient, and long-suffering; there’s literally nothing that she could have done better, I think.

And yet, she finds herself in a situation where her husband’s heart is elsewhere, and she’s left tending to her husband’s cranky father, and taking care of her husband’s family matters, all by herself.

Perhaps that’s the lesson here; that sometimes bad things happen to good people? You can be the perfect model of a wife, and you might still never enjoy the affection of your husband.

Sigh. Poor Jum Hyo. I really felt for her. 😔

THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]

Y’know, I really wasn’t super sure that Show would be able to get me on board with the idea of Woo Jin and Shim Deok killing themselves, which is where our story opens.

It’s a tricky and delicate topic, isn’t it? And I just can’t see myself endorsing suicide as a way out of a difficult situation.

So.. take my following remarks with that in mind; that this is more of a hypothetical exercise for me, than an actual endorsement of suicide as a solution, ok?

That said, I have to say that Show does a very solid job of laying things out for us, such that we can at least understand why Woo Jin and Shim Deok would look to suicide as their path forward.

Shim Deok’s stuck in a situation where no one wants to hire her to sing, because of the (unfounded) scandalous rumors about her prostituting herself for money.

The only job that’s forthcoming to her, is one that’s for the Japanese Government General of Korea, which entails her going against her own ideals, and which also comes with a barely concealed demand, that she grant sexual favors to her hirer.

And how horrible, that the lives of her family members are being used as leverage against her; basically, take this job, or we’ll kill your family.

Gosh, what’s a girl to do, right?

On Woo Jin’s side of things, it’s less overtly dire, but the pressure from his father reaches new levels of intensity, resulting in Woo Jin feeling more suffocated and forced into a corner than ever.

Add on the stress of Shim Deok preparing to marry someone else (cameo by Lee Sang Yeob! 🤩 And what a sweet character he plays, too!), and I can see why Woo Jin would eventually implode under pressure, and decide to forsake his duties, even if it means being cut off from his family.

I also appreciate that when Woo Jin runs away from his life, he and Shim Deok don’t actually set out, intending to kill themselves. In fact, it had sounded like they had hoped to run away together, and live together happily, for a long time.

But, when things fall apart for Shim Deok like that, and she finds herself in what feels like an impossible predicament, and starts to entertain thoughts of dying – that’s when Woo Jin assures her that it’s ok to rest, and that he’ll be right by her side.

It’s very tragic, but it’s also moving, that he would offer to die with her, without so much as a second thought, because he can see that they are both stuck, with no real way out.

I’m glad that they have a chance to spend those last few days together, just enjoying each other’s company in a cloud of freedom.

And, I’m also glad that they each get to leave behind a legacy; Woo Jin’s set of 5 plays, and Shim Deok’s recording, which includes “Hymn Of Death,” which eventually became Korea’s first pop song in 1926.

It’s touching, really, that because that record producer dude had mentioned to Shim Deok that many people find the classical songs hard to relate to, she finds a way to offer them something different and relatable, as her swan song.

It’s so very bittersweet, to see them make their last preparations, before facing the fate they’ve chosen for themselves.

Woo Jin finally returns Shim Deok’s hat, and on the deck, they share one last dance, and one last kiss.

I’m quite struck, really, by how they both shed tears of sadness, as they prepare to die, but at the same time, there’s a lot of peace and acceptance, of the choice that they’ve made; to die, that they might truly live. 💔

THE FINAL VERDICT:

Heartbreaking, moving and thought-provoking, despite its short running time.

FINAL GRADE: B+

TRAILER:

MV:

WHERE TO WATCH:

You can check out the show on Netflix here.

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Kay
Kay
19 days ago

Glad you liked this one. I too found it a solid though sobering watch. Very interesting all around 🙂

Gabrielle Tiu
Gabrielle Tiu
1 month ago

Hi 🙂 any light dramas you want to recommend?

eda harris
eda harris
1 month ago

it’s interesting, like we all look at the same thing and see it differently. i guess it is mostly connected to our own experiences in life.
and my perception of this little gem of a drama, might be just the explanation.
i would have never stumbled over this drama if it wasn’t for KFG’s review (for which i am beyond grateful).
it picked my interest for three reasons:
it is a true story.
it is the 20s.
and it deals with the topic of death (the title)

a true story means i can actually hook into some real people’s lives, rather than following a character created in the minds of other people (writer, director, actor, etc, – even if it is of the highest quality). it’s like walking into the hall of the akashic records, kind of universal library of everything that ever existed, ever been thought and discussed by people, ever acted, all emotions, all interactions… it means i am walking into their emotional and intellectual worlds and walk along with them on their path…

historic dramas in general interest me, but a true story – multiply it by a million!

the topic of death intrigued me for most of my life – curiosity and fear, the finality of it is undisputable, unchangeable and you can never see that being again (this is the only case that we are allowed to say “never”). what do we discover at the moment of death, is there anything to discover? and how do we arrive at a point of death when death is not yet at our door? (suicide)

and then there is one more element in this drama- the song itself, “the waves of danube”. this song was very popular at the time i was growing up in russia, and i listened to it many times. that wrapped it up for me very tightly, and it was only left for me to watch.

let me tell you, for me this drama is an 11 out of 10, it’s an A++.
i just finished it last night, and the emotions are still spilling over.
it completely enveloped me with this most tender emotion possible, which i have no other words as the softest pain cross-bred with the most exquisite, graceful, overwhelming beauty, (story, production, acting, cinematography… you name it, it has it all) although of course it’s strange to describe pain as soft, but yet it is…

spoiler may be not.. just in case it is
i feel the salty waters of the ocean (their final resting place) mixed in with the salt of my own tears washing over my very soul, in hopes that this last place of their deeply wounded lives is forever a place of eternal peace. i see myself bringing white flowers thrown into that ocean, and spilling some soju in the traditional korean way. i feel like lowering my head and bowing very low in recognition of their talents, of their contributions to korea and humanity in general, in recognition of their deep pain, that brought them to “the end of their young lives in order to be able to live.”

and last but not least. the acting.
unlike the other people here, i felt that lee jong suk delivered the most nuanced, fine tuned performance, which was a rare treat for me. and shin hye-sun, whom i first noticed and liked in stranger, was pretty incredible here also. they were perfectly cast, “bouncing off” each other, and i could feel their emotions, their pull and resistance, their true connection. they made me be with them.

in addition, the snippets of woo jin’s poetry totally captivated my emotions and imagination, elevated my delight to an even deeper level.

j3ffc
j3ffc
1 month ago
Reply to  eda harris

So glad you enjoyed this one! Since its been years for me, I am almost convinced to give it another watch, and I will, if I can just find that darned time machine!

eda harris
eda harris
1 month ago
Reply to  j3ffc

I am almost convinced to give it another watch

you should, it’s on netflix. i totally loved this drama, it’s a rare gem, really. and on top fell in love with lee jong suk. so now i made a whole list of all his works, and of course i just have to add some time to a 24 hour day. aigoo!

Caroline Gabriela
Caroline Gabriela
11 days ago
Reply to  eda harris

Eda! I just finished watching Hymn of Death 😭😭😭😭

Oh my God! I knew right from the start how this would end, but it was still so emotional to actually see it unfold on screen. And those closing moments… damn they linger.

Since Hymn is based on true story, I’d like to think that most of its key plot points—the music, the romance, the scandal and the ending—are pretty much public knowledge and therefore what I’m going to write are not spoilers. Surely many watch Hymn already knowing what happened to Yun Sim-deok and Kim U-jin in real life. But if anyone here prefers to know as little as possible before watching the show, then they should skip this comment just in case.

Spoilers
Anyway I am curious if anyone has written a fact vs fiction explainer on Hymn as a drama. I haven’t been able to find any, at least not in English. Hymn did disclaim up front that they took some creative liberties for dramatic purposes, which is totally legit and perhaps even necessary for moving the story forward as a drama, given that real life often comes with gaping plot holes. So I want to know which parts of Hymn are fact and which ones are the writer’s/ director’s imagination.

As I watched episodes 2 and 3 I started to notice such beautiful cinematography of delicate natural landscapes: it’s basically visual poetry and such a powerful accompaniment to the actual poetry this show portrays. I guess the cinematography was not as pronounced in a mostly indoors episode 1, but the show still managed to capture a beautifully detailed and believable 1920s Japan and Japan occupied Korea throughout.

For a melodrama that’s dominated with melancholic emotions, Hymn has indeed a surprisingly fast pace of storytelling, but unlike KFG’s opinion, I didn’t feel rushed at all. I would actually call it efficient, because for what little time Hymn allocates to each plot development, this show knows how to make it count with memorable tensions and releases that are emotionally impactful. And I appreciate being given juuuusssttt enough space to sow proverbial seeds of emotional investment without having to dwell too long on each plot development.

We only see glimpses of his play being performed by the theater troupe in Korea, but Kim U-jin reminds me of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Born and raised in Netherlands occupied Indonesia, Sukarno spent his 20s and 30s writing and directing community theater plays about Indonesia’s future independence while in exile from his native Java island. He was exiled as punishment for his pro-independence activism in Java, so heavily symbolic plays in Malay or other local languages was how he could continue his activism covertly in exile. This shows that playwrights like Sukarno and Kim U-jin really can be some significant forces in garnering the people’s support for a political vision, by engaging them directly in the arts and storytelling.

Also, Kim U-jin’s poetry give me the goosebumps every single time. He gives such a liberating voice to the universal suffering all human beings are familiar with. While he has blessed us with such beautiful work, I am sorry that he had lived through hell to create them.

But it is Yun Sim-deok’s story that sank my heart. The woman’s curse, so to say, is a harrowing reality all women in a patriarchal society experience to different degrees. But to see it happen specifically to our beloved soprano in those specific ways 😡😡😡😡 it’s purely evil. Something about seeing this scandal on screen really hits home. I feel angry and helpless as I watch Yun Sim-deok try to navigate this predicament, only to find dead ends.

Yun Sim-Deok and Kim U-jin’s deaths are such a tragic loss to Korea, and to the world too. To think that in an ideal universe, this patriotic playwright and valiant vocalist could be alive together and continue creating such beautiful and powerful works for maybe another 5-6 decades… at least they’d see Korea win its independence from Japan in the mid 1940s, and the cause they fought for on the theater stage becoming a reality (i.e. Korean identity and language becoming legal again, and redefining Korean culture and morale after decades of devastation under Japan’s notoriously brutal imperialism). But that’s not what happened.

While I would like to acknowledge the significance of suicide in East Asian cultures as an honorable sacrifice for restoring the family’s dignity, I do believe that watching Hymn today calls for a conversation on mental health. I believe Hymn is a cautionary tale about the irreversible damage the patriarchy is capable of doing to otherwise fine young women and men deserving a bright future. It really is a rampant intergenerational societal illness, not only in Korea or Japan but any society in the world that enables unbridled power for the patriarchy. And acknowledging this illness is the first step to allow healing for the next generations. I believe deaths like Yun Sim-deok’s and Kim U-jin’s really are preventable if we as a society take some courageous steps to challenge patriarchal power structures and have humanizing conversations about our struggles. If suicide and loneliness are kissing cousins, then we need to do something about the universal loneliness of impossible filial piety demands, gender based violence, poverty, and the repression of the human creative spirit. And doing something about it starts with talking about it with fellow struggling human beings in a safe, non-judgmental and shame-free space.

I just wish we got to hear Shin Hye-sun sing the eponymous Hymn of Death after some powerful reveals throughout the show on how it originated. I listened to the original Yun Sim-deok recording on YouTube, it is a heartbreaking masterpiece. I don’t know Korean, but it doesn’t take knowing the language to hear sorrow and desolation in an otherwise graceful and enthralling performance. I guess the show couldn’t get away with playing the original recording of Hymn of Death, because the real Yun Sim-deok sounds so different from Shin Hye-sun’s version. I bet replicating Yun Sim-deok’s emotional delivery of the Hymn of Death is a tall order for any singer or actor, but Shin Hye-sun has been dubbed Korea’s best actor in the millennial generation and I believe she would have delivered something truly sublime. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see it happen.

I also really want to read Kim U-jin’s plays and novels but haven’t been able to find English translations of them. I don’t think Kim U-jin even has a Wikipedia page—it keeps redirecting to the idol (Kim) Woojin. There is not much written about him in English on the internet—there’s not much written about Yun Sim-deok in English, and there’s even less about Kim U-jin.

Eda, thank you once again for recommending this gem to me. Hymn is definitely among the most memorable Kdramas I have ever watched. And it’s not even one that I would have picked on my own: it’s a tragic historical melodrama that’s nothing like the action comedies I’m normally drawn to. Hymn of Death also gets an A+ from me.

Last edited 11 days ago by kfangurl
Caroline Gabriela
Caroline Gabriela
11 days ago
Reply to  kfangurl

Noted, thanks KFG

Su San
Su San
1 month ago

Thanks for the review! This was one of the very first Kdramas that I watched. Fewer episodes was the main reason I chose to watch it even though I don’t prefer shows about adultery or tragedies. However, I like shows about musicians and became curious about the show when I found the original recording of “Hymn of Death” on Youtube.

It was helpful to my lens to keep in mind the view of suicide in Asian cultures.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minority-report/201406/asian-honor-and-suicide#

Last edited 1 month ago by kfangurl
ngobee
ngobee
1 month ago

I dropped this drama somewhere during the second episode, basically because of the ML. Very sorry to say that for me, Lee Jeong Seok has zero chemistry as a lover, with any actress. It is a lovely production and I enjoyed the periode settings, especially the juxtaposition of Japan and Korea, but that was not enough for me, unfortunately.

j3ffc
j3ffc
1 month ago
Reply to  ngobee

Your point re LJS is apt. I didn’t find him very compelling, either.

uyen
1 month ago

I’m glad you watched it! I agree with j3ffc’s comment about being mindful it’s based on a true story. Without it I would have felt more mixed feelings about some parts that it romanticized and the overall quick handling of things. But I enjoyed our leads and they ended up pulling me in for the angsty journey. I did end up listening to Yun Sim Deok’s rendition of Hymn of Death after watching the drama, and it was very haunting and lovely.

j3ffc
j3ffc
1 month ago

Great review and so interesting to see kfangurl check this show out. I saw it a while back, relatively early in my drama-watching days. I checked it out because of Shin Hye Sun, who impressed me as the second FL in “Legend of the Blue Sea”, and it was definitely the first drama I watched without comedic elements to it. I also applied the “true story” lens in my watch – think it’s a must. Besides SHS’s performance, which I enjoyed, I really liked the period setting and the atmospheric cinematography. I’ve spent 3 hours in worse ways than this.