Thursday, June 27, 2019

[Drama Review] Hymn of Death (사의 찬미)

With any tv production or a movie based on real people and real events there comes one unpleasant twist - the stories make us wish the history could have been different. We tend to wish a different outcome. I remember I wished, against the reason and all my historical knowledge, the final of Gyebaek would be different, despite knowing all too well the brave general would die. Hymn of Death also deals with real, historical figures, and yet does it in such a tepid manner that I really didn't care whether they die or live.

Before I start writing a bit about the drama, let me introduce you to the dramatis personnae. My usual trick. 
playwright Kim Ujin (left) Yun Simdeok (right)

Yun Simdeok (1897-1926) - she was a first professional Korean soprano.
Kim Ujin (1897-1926) - a Korean playwright, fascinated by Nietzsche and Marx, pioneer of a modern theater drama.
Japanese occupation - it's kind of self-explanatory.
They jumped to their deaths on August 4th, 1926, from the ship going from Shimonoseki to Busan. An article from Korea Joong-ang Daily describes the pair perfectly:

Artistic couple’s death leap spawns imitators

Aug 01,2004
For star-crossed young lovers, the surging waves in the dark ocean at 4 a.m. on this date looked like shelter from the rough world.
So the couple embraced each other and jumped into the dark sea from the ferry that was taking them from Simonoseki in Japan back to Busan. (They were crossing the Hyunhaetan Sea, or Genkai Sea, whose Chinese characters mean “mysterious yet dangerous.”)
The couple were Yun Sim-deok, the first professional Korean soprano and Kim U-jin, a playwright, both 29.
Their suicide created a sensation back in Korea, then under Japanese colonial rule, sparking talk of the chaos of the modern age. Many young Koreans followed the couple’s path, which was likened to the series of suicides in Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
Ms. Yun left behind a record with a track titled “Eulogy of Death,” in which she sang, “You, searching for happiness, what you’re trying to find is nothing but nihilism.” She had recorded the song in Osaka three days before leaving Japan.
In the wake of the double suicide, the song, based on the classical “Waves of the Danube,” became an unprecedented success both in Korea and in Japan. Their love story has become an eternal theme in movies and dramas to this day.
The two lovers met in 1921, five years before their fateful leap. Mr. Kim, born to a big landowner in Jeolla, was in Tokyo pursuing a career in drama while majoring in English literature at the prestigious Waseda University. After forming a drama troupe, Mr. Kim was on tour when he came across Ms. Yun, of Pyeongyang, a teacher at the Ueno Music School.
The two fell madly in love, though Mr. Kim was already a married man, after heeding his conservative father’s demand. The arranged marriage did not matter at all to these soulmates, which was the beginning of their tragedy.
Mr. Kim, remembered as a pioneer of Korean drama, was then a young, defiant man obsessed with philosophers like Nietzsche and Marx. Starting a career as a poet, Mr. Kim penned plays and critiques that shocked the Korean literature scene, then in its infancy.
To Mr. Kim, his lovely girlfriend was a match made in heaven. Ms. Yun, born into a poor family but famous for her beauty as well as her voice, was smart enough to secure a government scholarship to study in Tokyo, where she eventually became a music teacher.
After rosy days in Tokyo, however, Ms. Yun had to return home to Seoul, where she tried to pursue a career as a classical singer. But back then, her home country was not ready to appreciate Ms. Yun’s Western classical music, forcing her to become a pop singer and actress.
Anywhere she went, however, Ms. Yun was like a flower that attracts bees. In Seoul, men always hovered around her. Lee Yong-mun, a millionaire, was one such suitor who became a patron. He invited Ms. Yun to his house mostly at night.
People began to gossip, and newspapers started publishing stories about the actress’ affair. The news traveled to Tokyo to Mr. Kim, who was so angry that he refused to take Ms. Yun’s phone calls. He eventually sent her a goodbye letter.
Ms. Yun, on the other hand, was too worn out to deal with the controversy and abruptly left for Manchuria, where she spent several months wandering here and there.
When she left Manchuria, Ms. Yun decided to return to her lover’s side. Flying to Tokyo in 1926, Ms. Yun slowly won back Mr. Kim’s heart, only to decide to leave the world with him.
Following the suicide, rumors flew that the couple were in Italy, running a music store. What led people to believe this? Ms. Yun reportedly told her sister after recording “Eulogy of Death,” “You won’t see me until I become a success, so don’t try to find me.” But the rumors died down.
The two had once dreamed about going to Europe to study. Mr. Kim used to tell his girlfriend, “I’ll go to Germany to study drama, and Sim-deok, you’ll be in Italy to pursue music.
“Let’s get together once a month somewhere in between, like Switzerland, to talk about each other’s study and travel around the continent.”
Ms. Yun loved hearing the story, but she told him, “I think that’s going to be only a dream.” Sadly, she was right.
by Chun Su-jin
The story, as we witness in the drama, is set against the backdrop of a Japanese occupation. 1926 year was in the middle of a stricter rule over Korea (and over Japan as well), because in the previous  year, Japan implemented many rules, mainly Public Security Preservation Laws, that was designed to suppress the political dissent and hamper any gatherings of groups that weren't exactly falling in line with national polity. It reads as follows:
Article One: Anyone who has formed an association with the aim of altering the kokutai or the system of private property, and anyone who has joined such an association with full knowledge of its object, shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding ten years. (Max M. Ward, Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan)
Moreover, in 1919 an independence movement (March First Movement) started in Korea, inspired by the outcome of the WWI and The Treaty of Versailles. Many countries regained their independence or some nations were formed. Koreans wanted to break free from the Japanese occupation, but sadly, they were completely ignored in Paris. Nevertheless, the movement started to ignite a sense of a Korean identity and their quest for independence. It was met with harsher ways in which Japanese government started to deal with the unruly subjects. Since around 1919 a second phase of rule, a brutal policy of de-Koreanisation was implemented.This period of time, the 1920's is a starting point of the creation of a modern Korean identity - for the first time such ideas and terms as "culture" appeared among the intellectual spheres. Japanese students and literati adopted the term after the German concept of Kultur, and mixed it with the concept of kokutai. Of course those of Koreans who studied at the Japanese Universities knew about this and the intellectual ferment was brought home - and the philosophical reflection on "Korean culture" began.

And neither, apparently, a good script.
When Simdeok and Ujin met, it was obvious from the start they were meant to meet, often they are referred to as 'star crossed lovers". According to the series, Ujin wanted to show his Korean compatriots at the homeland a new theater, that could present the Korean identity and culture. But sadly, at home, they weren't that much interested in some new forms of plays and theater. 
One day he invited everyone from his group to his home, and then Simdeok realized something she wasn't aware of - Ujin was not only from a rich family, he was also married. And here we come to the gist of the tragedy and the impossibility to be together. Ujin's marriage was one of the convenience, two rich families joining together - as it was done for ages and in every culture. His wife - an obedient girl who was reared to be the perfect yangban's wife, could not offer him the intellectual and sensual stimulation he needed. They were married, but they had nothing in common.
I will not delve more into the family situation of Shimdeok - we all know how parents could force (I almost wanted to say 'sell') their daughters into marriages with much older men just for financial support. Being a single, pretty girl a hundred years from now wasn't easy. And the talent was rather an obstacle - because who needs talent when all a guy wants is an obedient wife who looks at him as he's the saviour?

Yun's most famous recording, done in Osaka, three days before her death in 1926, Praise of Death, is often considered as the first example of a new music genre, so called "popular songs" (yuhaeng changga), meaning contemporary Korean songs with new tempo, themes and melodies. The song is based on the tune of Waves of the Danube by Jon Ivanovici.
Below you can listen to the song:

She had a beautiful voice, and the song evokes all that longing and all of the emotions regarding the impossible future.

This shot I found particularly foreboding, given their fate.
The main problem with this series is that it does not engage the viewer.
It's empty. Devoid of any emotions. And it's not the actors' fault. They tried to portray the doomed lovers' fate as earnestly as they could. But I somehow couldn't engage. I know fully well the setting of this series is tragic, I know their fate is tragic. And yet I really couldn't feel the connection or care about them.

And to end it with something uplifting (if the stupidity is so) - I read some people wanted a second season when it aired on Netflix last year.
*the curtain falls mercifully...*