Overall Rating: A
Subtitles: Netflix English subtitles for this were really good–I do not recall having any issues with the way things were translated.
Brief Synopsis: During the Japanese occupation a playwright and a singer who are both Koreans living in Japan cross paths and fall in love, despite the many obstacles to their relationship. Watch on Netflix here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: This story is a straight tragedy ending in double suicide but it was very delicately and beautifully done. The story is a tragedy but it was still fulfilling.
Characters: This is just a three episode series (AsianWiki actually categorizes it as a TV movie) and it really features and revolves around the two leads so I am going to focus on them exclusively.
We have Kim Woo Jin (Lee Jong Suk), a Korean playwright living in Japan who dreams of using art to inspire patriotism in his countrymen, and Yun Sim Deok (Shin Hye Sun), a talented singer who is living in Japan and meets Woo Jin when she becomes part of his production. Of the two, Sim Deok was the standout for me. When we first meet her she’s aloof and easily offended by Woo Jin and the antics she views as inappropriate. This exterior quickly cracks and she becomes a truly tenacious character, the initial hints of attitude turning into the seeds for her courage and conviction. In the three hour span of the show we learn that her family leans on her, often to her detriment, and she has to balance her dreams and her own desires against her need to support the siblings that her parents cannot or are unwilling to support on their own. She never loses her strength, and even stands up for herself in situations where a woman in her position in that point in history would have had a very hard time exerting any kind of power.
Woo Jin was less memorable overall. He clearly had strong convictions but we see him giving in to exterior pressure far more often than Sim Deok–in fact, in several instances, it is only Sim Deok’s support and encouragement that keep him on his path. He has a history of giving in to pressure as well, which we learn when we meet his wife (SHOCK) and he is taken away from his beloved writing and directing to run his family business per his father’s wish. Filial piety is a big deal in Korean culture, especially at this moment in history, so he cannot exactly be faulted for the choices he makes based on his family’s wishes but it makes him seem like, of the two leads, he has far less agency.
They are both extremely likable characters, though, and the actors are amazing at bringing life and depth to every moment and keeping you invested in them individually and as a couple.
Relationships: Pretty much there were only two types of relationships in this show: Woo Jin and Sim Deok’s relationship with each other and each of their relationships with their families. The former was wonderful, the later both terrible. (Not terribly done just…. bad relationships).
To be fair Sim Deok got along with her siblings and they were, for the most part, supportive of her and seemed to understand the huge burden placed on her because her parents were useless. It was really unclear why it was that her parents were useless but they sure were. Neither worked and both depended on her and were less than kind about it as a concept. There was a real lack of love and empathy there that was replaced by a gross dependency dynamic that was hard to watch. But it did make it very easy to understand why, when it came to it, Sim Deok believed her best option was to take her own life.
Woo Jin was in a loveless arranged marriage (though there was nothing wrong with his wife–I actually felt terrible for her) and had an awful relationship with his father. Daddy wanted his son to live the life he had envisioned for him and Woo Jin just wanted to write and dream of a free Joseon. Woo Jin’s story also leant itself well to the “suicide is my best option” narrative but in some ways I felt less so than Sim Deok’s. He, I think, could have gone off and lived on his own and been cut off from his family and survived just fine because no one was depending on him in a material way. For Sim Deok running away was not possible because it would leave her with the guilt of knowing her family would suffer because of it, and you can see how she would have not been able to bear that.
Together, the two were very sweet. They start off at odds with each other and quickly move past that into a beautiful little flirtatious vignette that ends when it’s revealed that Woo Jin is already married. The two cannot stay away from each other, though, and we get some of the cutest montages I’ve ever seen in my life of them just sitting on benches and reading together or going to the market and they are both lit up on these scenes in a way they are not in the rest of the show. Even if I think Woo Jin is a jerk for betraying his wife, I was definitely invested in this romance and I felt all the feelings when they had both their ups and downs. The final scene with their double suicide I felt was beautifully and delicately handled and the non-verbal acting that our leads delivered was phenomenal.
High Points: The general tenor of the story and the handling of the tragic ending.
Low Points: Honestly I just felt bad for Woo Jin’s wife, who was sweet as can be and absolutely powerless in her situation and got done real dirty by the whole plot in general.
Final comments: I definitely recommend Hymn of Death, especially since it’s so short and easy to binge in one sitting. It is a beautiful and emotional show with a lot of payoff despite its short playtime. Be aware that this one does not have any of the classic K Drama humor or hyjinx–it’s pretty heavy from beginning to end.