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.
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.
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+
WHERE TO WATCH:
You can check out the show on Netflix here.
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