I kind of like this one. A short 3-episode television series titled ‘The Hymn of Death’ starring Lee Jong-suk and Shin Hye-sun just recently aired on SBS. The drama occurs during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea and is loosely based on Korea’s first soprano singer Yun Sim-deok’s life and her affair with English literature student Kim Woo-jin. Shin Hye-sun plays Yun Sim-deok who eventually finds herself in a forbidden relationship with Kim Woo-jin (Lee Jong-suk) who she meets through a play.
The Hymn of Death/Praise of Death: Episode 1 Recap
A ship crew member performs his usual routine check and walks down the aisle of the ship to check for anything suspicious. Everything seems to be fine until he overhears music playing in one of the cabins. Upon entering the room, he discovers an apology note asking for the person who discovers the note to return the luggage in the room back to his family. The crew member grows alarmed and runs outside in the balcony to check for any signs of anyone. However, all he finds are two pairs of shoes resting side by side on the balcony.
It’s 1921 in Tokyo. Stage drama director Kim Woo-jin (Lee Jong-suk) approves of the script for their new play and announces his plans for the play to the rest of the team. He hopes that the play will not only help fund their association, but also give the people of Joseon a sense of pride in their country’s music and arts. At that moment, team member Hong Hae-sung (Oh Eui-sik) steps out dressed as a woman and complains about his character. Why does he have to portray a woman when there’s a woman on the team? However, Han Ki-joo (Han Eun-seo) is the pianist in the team so she will be unable to act. Team member Hong Nan-pa (Lee Ji-hoon) shares that he does know someone who can maybe help them out.
Soprano singer Yun Sim-deok (Shin Hye-sun) practices another round of singing with her vocal instructor. She struggles to properly emote the emotions in the song so her instructor encourages her to position herself as the woman in the song in order to sing better. Sim-deok listens and does as she is told.
After practice, Sim-deok reunites with her friend Nan-pa. He informs her of the show he and his association will be hosting throughout the summer and invites her to join them. Though Sim-deok is a bit hesitant at first as the play could cause danger with the Japanese government, she eventually decides to check out the first day of rehearsals.
When she arrives at the rehearsal room, she overhears Woo-jin reading a Japanese poem in Korean. She barges in and questions why he’s reading the book in Korean, but Woo-jin is more curious about something else. Why did Sim-deok just suddenly barge into the room without his permission or knowledge? Just as Sim-deok is about to leave, Nan-pa enters the room and introduces them both to each other. Woo-jin finally warms up a bit to Sim-deok and invites her to participate in the play with them as an actress.
However, Sim-deok isn’t interested and declines the offer. Woo-jin questions whether she has any love or patriotism towards her own country. She should participate in the play if she wants to do something for her country. Sim-deok is more worried about her career as a soprano singer which she fears she might not achieve if she were to participate in the play. Though Sim-deok originally refuses the opportunity to be in the play at first, she eventually gives in to the offer under two conditions.
Woo-jin shares the information about Sim-deok to the rest of his team. She’ll only offer to be in the play if: 1) all she has to do is sing and 2) she can quit the show at any point if there is danger. Though the rest of the team are uncertain about Sim-deok, Nan-pa and Woo-jin are confident in her abilities. Sim-deok herself has expectations for the play. She shares with her roommate that she only chose to participate because she wants to prove herself to Woo-jin so he won’t act so demeaning towards her.
That night, Woo-jin receives another letter from his father. Like all the times before, his dad sends him some money and reiterates that Woo-jin should finish his studies successfully. Woo-jin sighs and finds himself in a tough situation. The next day, Sim-deok joins the rest of the team in rehearsals. They focus on the musical session of the play first so Sim-deok performs in front of the team while Ki-joo plays the piano for her. While the rest of the guys are clearly enamored by Sim-deok’s vocals, Sim-deok can’t help but pay attention to Woo-jin who has his back turned towards her during her performance.
When she finishes, Woo-jin makes some notes about the song, but doesn’t comment on Sim-deok’s performance. He also introduces assistant director Kyosuke Tomoda to the team before they resume with play rehearsals. Sim-deok pays close attention to Woo-jin’s directing; he gives constructive criticism to the other team members, but failed to say anything about her performance.
Sim-deok grows offended and addresses the issue with Woo-jin. After encountering each other at a restaurant, Sim-deok confronts Woo-jin about his harsh behavior towards her at a bar. He’s been belittling her since they first met as evident when he didn’t comment anything about her performance, but said something about the other team members. It was embarrassing for Sim-deok. Woo-jin defends that he didn’t make any comments about her performance because he had nothing to say about it; it was beautiful.
Woo-jin adds that he hopes the play will provide viewers with a sense of hope and optimism despite the situation their country is in. He also references Sim-deok’s question from their very first encounter about him reading a Japanese book in Korean. Woo-jin explains that he practices the habit so as to not forget that he’s Korean.
The next day at rehearsals, Sim-deok watches as Woo-jin directs the show and gives constructive criticism to the actors. It’s not until Ki-joo suggests they practice another round of singing that Sim-deok stops focusing on Woo-jin. However, she’s curious about the rehearsals and how they can afford to reserve the room for practice. Ki-joo answers that they’re all pitching in, but Woo-jin is primarily the one funding the rehearsals. Later on that night, Woo-jin pens a poem inside of his room while Sim-deok repeatedly thinks about Woo-jin before sleeping.
Sim-deok grows worried about Woo-jin when he fails to show up for two days of practice. After asking team member Myung-hee about Woo-jin, she heads to his house to visit him and enters his bedroom while he’s fast asleep. She places the stacks of books on the bedroom floor onto Woo-jin’s desk and reads the poem that he penned the other night. Just then, Woo-jin wakes up and questions what Sim-deok is doing in his bedroom.
Woo-jin eventually encourages her to leave, but she makes up a bunch of excuses just so she can stay a little longer with him. Eventually, Sim-deok exits from the house and returns to the rehearsal room. Woo-jin watches as she walks away and eats the porridge she cooked for him after she’s gone. Later on that evening, Sim-deok returns to the rehearsal room and is questioned by Nan-pa on where she went. However, at that moment, Woo-jin enters the room which surprises everyone. They’re happy to see him back, all thanks to someone who made him some healthy porridge.
After practice, Woo-jin and Sim-deok walk home together. Woo-jin reveals that he usually takes a few days off this time of the year to commemorate his late mother’s anniversary. Sim-deok brings up the poem that she read back in his room earlier and suggests Woo-jin also write plays since he seems to enjoy them. Does he have any plans in doing so in the future? Woo-jin does like plays, but isn’t too sure about writing one. Before bidding farewell with Sim-deok, Woo-jin thanks her for placing his stacks of books onto his desk when she visited him earlier that day.
Things are going well with rehearsals the next day until 3 government officers interrupt practice. There’s been rumors about some Joseon people causing trouble and the officers have come to check up on the team to see what they’ve been up to. The police captain interrogates Woo-jin in front of everyone and threatens him to speak in their native language. When Woo-jin responds back in Korean, the captain grows angry.
Thankfully, assistant director Kyosuke Tomoda calms the situation down a little bit by speaking to the captain himself in Japanese. The two additional police officers take a look around the room for anything suspicious while the captain wanders around on the stage and destroys a few of the team’s props. Though the officers fail to find anything suspicious, they issue a warning to the team to not cause any trouble or else they will get punished.
That night, the team holds an emergency meeting to discuss about their play. They debate whether to move forward with the play or to just cancel everything especially after the incident earlier that day. Though some of the team members are afraid that the police will raid their practice room again, Woo-jin ensures everyone that they will be fine. Sim-deok supports Woo-jin and reiterates his comment. With some new confidence, she encourages everyone to resume with practice and so they do.
After practice concludes, Sim-deok and Woo-jin leave together again. She thanks Woo-jin for helping her change her attitude and thoughts about the play. Sure, the play might not do much in changing their country’s situation, but at least they’re doing something. In return, Woo-jin thanks Sim-deok for acknowledging and recognizing his sincerity. In a voice over, Woo-jin recites,
Oh, youth does not wait for us.
Coldly, like a flowing stream. Sadly, like a wilting flower. Our youth is fleeting.
Oh, youth is just like a handful of sand we encounter while riding the waves of life.
With all your might, hurl it at the tides. Make them snarl and howl.
There’s only a few more days until the tour starts and our team is to finally show viewers what they’ve spent months preparing for. Our team all decide to take a photo together to commemorate the special moment.
And so just like that, our team embarks on their summer-long tour to perform their play. While on the ship to the first stop, Sim-deok expresses to Woo-jin her excitement and happiness for the play. Once they arrive in the first city, the team hands out promotional flyers to recruit viewers and successfully performs their first show.
Things seem to be going well for our team. They perform as they usually do and Sim-deok manages to successfully sing in front of the audience with the support of Woo-jin. However, during the play, a government officer watches the show from the audience and takes special notice of one of the lines that was recited during the play.
With the summer-long tour having concluded, our team celebrate their hard work at a local club after the final show. Myung-hee and Woo-jin have a conversation with each other about post-graduation plans. Though Woo-jin doesn’t know what he plans on doing after he graduates, Myung-hee hopes he’ll at least continue to write. While the two converse with each other, Sim-deok hangs out with Ki-joo before Ki-joo is taken away by Hae-sung to slow dance.
Sim-deok gathers all the courage inside of her to ask Woo-jin for a dance, but she’s interrupted by Nan-pa who asks her for permission to dance first. So the two walk over to the dance floor and slow dance with each other. It doesn’t take long for Woo-jin to notice the two dancing with each other which causes him to grow jealous. As for Nan-pa, he warns Sim-deok to eliminate any feelings or affection she has harbored for Woo-jin. Before Nan-pa can elaborate any further, the same group of officers from the show storm into the local club.
They arrest Woo-jin and torture him before throwing him into prison. The rest of the team wait eagerly for any updates or news about Woo-jin. Though the show was originally censored and approved, Woo-jin was punished as a result of the line that was recited in the play:
Ten years ago, we had freedom. But today on this land, freedom no longer exists.
The government is clearly showing our team what consequences they can face if they were to speak about sensitive topics such as freedom in their plays. After receiving updates about Woo-jin, our team dissolve and go about their own ways for now. Sim-deok stops by the prison where Woo-jin is stationed and waits in fear for his release. When he finally is released from prison, Woo-jin finds Sim-deok patiently waiting for him not too far away from the gate entrance.
She breaks down into tears upon seeing the blood and injuries all over Woo-jin’s body and face. The two can only stand in silence and exchange painful stares at each other. Words cannot describe how they’re feeling or what Woo-jin went through while in prison.
Don’t you just love it when a drama tells and executes a cliche Korean drama in such a beautiful and effortless way that it makes the drama seem better than it actually is? Lol. There’s nothing new about this drama that we haven’t seen before. Two star-crossed lovers who start off on bad terms first, but eventually fall in love with each other and find themselves in a forbidden relationship that should have never began (but I also have to remind myself that the drama is based on a true story so I can’t critique the premise too too much). There are plenty of dramas and movies similar to this drama, but the directing and cinematography is what makes this drama compelling.
This isn’t to say that the drama is bad or anything though because it’s not. While the main premise is centered around soprano singer Yun Sim-deok and her tragic love story with Woo-jin, there’s still additional details about the drama that is realistic and interesting. The main obviously being the historical and political situation that our characters are stuck in which serves as the main inspiration and catalyst for the play in the first place. As we learn from Woo-jin, he hopes the play will allow for viewers to feel a sense of hope and optimism amongst the challenging times of Japanese colonialism. He hopes the play will have some sort of impact and inspiration for viewers which is why he risked his life to direct the play and to lead the team into performing the play to the best of their abilities. Woo-jin is passionate about the play and his willingness to be punished and tortured for the play which was a collective effort by the team showcases just how much the play means to him.
Since the drama is primarily about Woo-jin and Sim-deok’s forbidden love story, I actually was satisfied with the relationship development and how things formed between the two. I never felt like things were rushed and I liked how things gradually developed between the couple. They had first bad impressions of each other, but eventually came into liking each other once they got to know the other better. Maybe a part of this satisfaction stems from the fact that Lee Jong-suk and Shin Hye-sun have pretty good chemistry with each other. I can feel the chemistry between them and they’re easily selling the love story between Woo-jin and Sim-deok. Maybe that’s why it was so believable to watch them fall in love with each other over the course of the two months when the team was preparing for the play.
Since the drama is a drama special of only three episodes, we won’t be getting much and the storytelling will be pretty direct as it was in this first episode. As with all other drama specials, ‘Praise of Death’ was pretty enjoyable and I actually really liked it despite the cliche trope and basic premise. Sim-deok and Woo-jin’s love story was showcased in such beautiful and subtle ways whether it was in the small ways they would stare at each other during practice or leave rehearsals together every time. They obviously also influenced each other in a way with Woo-jin changing Sim-deok’s mindset about the play or Sim-deok placing Woo-jin’s books on the table to remind him about his passions. They show appreciation and gratitude for each other in the simplest and most beautiful ways.
Of course, the directing is the beauty of the drama and is what made the first episode so easy and nice to watch. Even if the drama isn’t as riveting or unique per se, the directing and cinematography elevates the drama and pushes it to be a good drama. I never knew just how dramatic being in prison could be or how romantic stealing glances at your crush could be until this drama. I am really enjoying the filming and directing of this drama which doesn’t come as a surprise since the director has also directed Lee Jong-suk’s other project ‘While You Were Sleeping’ as well as medical drama ‘Romantic Doctor, Teacher Kim’ which were pretty nice to look at if anything.
I don’t expect too much out of this short TV drama, but I’m impressed with how things progressed in the first episode. Of course, the beginning of the episode foreshadowed a tragic ending for Sim-deok and Woo-jin (as happened in real life) so I’m anticipating how the two came to spend the few remaining moments of their lives with each other. Love sure is a powerful thing, but maybe it isn’t always good.
Bonus: Lots of extra screenshots because the drama looked amazing :^)