The lovers’ suicides which inspired the K-drama Hymn of Death (2018)

Patricia Hului

Think there’s no real-life Romeo and Juliet? Then you’ve never heard of the Korean drama Hymn of Death (2018).

It depicts the tragic romance between Korea’s first soprano Yun Sim-deok and legendary playwright Kim Woo-jin.

Starring Lee Jong-suk as Kim and Shin Hye-sun as Yun, the drama is directed by Park Soo-jin.

The background story behind Hymn of Death

Yun was born in Pyongyang (now the capital city of North Korea) in 1897. She was the second of four siblings.

Meanwhile, Kim was the son of a big landowner in Jeolla Province (now in South Korea). He was in an arranged marriage set by his father.

Since they lived so far apart from each other, how did these two meet and fall in love?

At that time, the Korean peninsular was under Japanese colonial rule.

After graduatIng from Gyeongseong Girls’ High School and working for a teacher for a year, Yun arrived in Japan as the first Korean student who earned a scholarship of the Japanese government general.

There, she studied in Aoyama Gakuin before entering Tokyo Music School to study vocal music. Yun was also the first Korean who attended the school.

Some reports stated Yun and Kim met while participating in a student drama association in Japan. Kim was at Waseda University to study English literature at that time.

Other reports stated that Yun was on a two-month road tour in Korea in 1921 when she met Kim.

Either way, the two fell in love and became inseparable.

The ups and downs of Yun and Kim’s affair

Yun established herself as a singer in Japan before returning to Korea.

Once back in her home country, she made her debut as the nation’s first soprano singer at the Central Youth Center in Jongro, Seoul.

Despite having a number of performances, Yun was still struggling as a singer. Like those who went abroad to study under a scholarship, Yun was supposed to work as a teacher.

Unfortunately, her teaching job never arrived. Furthermore, the country was still unfamiliar with Western classical music.

Due to financial difficulties, Yun became a pop singer and actress.

With the rise of her fame, many began to show interest in her including the media and interested pursuers.

One of them was a millionaire named Lee Yong-mun. The media began to report about Yun and Lee’s alleged relationship.

In the meantime, Kim had returned to Korea trying to pursue his career as a poet and playwright.

However, his family was against his career choice. Hence, he left Korea and went to Japan in 1926.

Despite being physically apart for some time, the couple maintained their affair. When the media began to speculate about Yun and Lee’s relationship, the news arrived to Kim who was in Japan.

Refusing to take Yun’s phone calls, Kim determined to end his affair by sending her a goodbye letter.

The recording of the ‘Hymn of Death’

What Yun did after receiving Kim’s breakup letter was what any rational woman would do while suffering from a heartbreak – she went travelling.

She spent several months in Manchuria before deciding to return to her lover’s side.

Around the same time, Japanese recording company Nitto in Osaka wanted to record her songs in July 1926.

When she was in Japan, Yun sent a telegram to Kim while she was in Tokyo to meet her in Osaka. She threatened to kill herself if Kim did not show up.

Her recording with the Japanese company was completed on Aug 1.

However, Yun requested to record one more song.

Written based on the western classic and a Romanian tune ‘The Waves of the Danube’, Yun wrote the lyrics to the song herself.

She called the song ‘In Praise of Death’ (in some translations it is ‘Eulogy of Death’).

The lovers’ suicides

At that time, nobody knew that Yun wrote the song as if it was her final words.

On the night of Aug 4, 1926, Yun and Kim jumped into the sea while boarding a passenger ship en route from Simonoseki to Busan, Korea.

The lovers were both just 29 years old.

After their suicides, rumours had it that the couple was in Italy starting a new life together and running a music store.

Yun and Kim both had dreams about going to Europe to study. Reportedly, Kim used to tell his lover, “I’ll go to Germany to study drama and Sim-deok, you’ll be in Italy to pursue music.”

He even suggested, “Let’s get together once a month somewhere in between like Switzerland, to talk about each other study and travel around the continent.”

To that, Yun only answered, “I think that is going to be only a dream.”

Unfortunately for the couple, Yun was right.

Their tragic love story fueled the sale of Yun’s final album. Upon its release, the album was selling 100,000 copies which was an unprecedented number at that time.

Today, her gramophone record is being sold for the highest price among any Korean musicians. As of 2016, only four copies of The Praise of Death were found in South Korea.

The official poster by Netflix for Hymn of Death (2018)

Watch the trailer here.