A new start, shadowed by historyWhen Sim Soo-bong witnessed the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in 1979, she was a 24-year-old new face on the pop music scene. Following a successful debut with her first album the year before, Ms. Sim was invited to perform for the president at a small private dinner.
Attendees said it was the president’s special request to have Ms. Sim sing for the night. With delicacies and Chivas Regal on the table, the president looked happy, enjoying the dinner and listening to Ms. Sim perform his favorite songs. That is, before Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the national intelligence service, abruptly stood up and shot the president, who soon collapsed toward Ms. Sim’s seat, blood pouring from his body.
The bullet penetrated the president’s chest, ending a military regime that took power in a 1961 coup d’etat. Receiving mixed reviews as either a dictator who held democracy hostage to economic growth or a great ruler who saved Korea from a destiny of poverty, the former president, who stayed in power for almost two decades, remains a divisive figure. What has again triggered controversy is the film “The President’s Last Bang,” directed by Im Sang-soo, which opened early this month.
Production of the film, which has been described as a black comedy, was veiled in secrecy, and caused turmoil even before its release. Mr. Park’s son, Park Ji-man, applied for a court injunction to bar distribution of the film, claiming it defames the former president.
The film did open, after producers obeyed the court’s ruling to excise documentary footage at the beginning and end. MK Pictures, the film’s producer, has asked another court to annul that injunction.
The film meanwhile had gathered about 700,000 viewers nationwide by late last week, a modest success, according to MK Pictures, considering the number of screens compared to those of competing films.
The film’s original title in Korean, “Geuttae Geusaramdeul” (The Men Back Then), happens to be the plural form of Ms. Sim’s debut song, though MK Pictures denies any direct connection between the two.
Ms. Sim said in a recent phone interview that she would not view the film. “I am a victim of the assassination,” she said. “I wish I could somehow break free from the past. For me, it’s time to move on, stepping on the past.”
Moving on does not seem to be so easy, however, when the shadow of the past still lingers. The bullet that hit the president also left a deep scar on Ms. Sim’s career. After the assassination, she was not permitted to make any public appearances ― obviously an order from those high up in the government ― a matter that continues to upset her even 25 years later.
“TV networks were more like a symbol of violence to me back then,” Ms. Sim said with a sigh. “Even now, I don’t feel comfortable on television.”
Ms. Sim’s blossoming career was halted abruptly only because she happened to be one of the few witnesses to the president’s assassination.
She persisted, however, by releasing albums. Even without the public exposure that she wanted, people found Ms. Sim’s plaintive songs attractive, and she continued singing in the genre called teuroteu, whose rhythms and melodies were influenced by the Japanese music style of enca.
She kept writing and singing hit songs, despite suffering from a lack of coverage, until she finally returned to television in 1984 with the lifting of the ban. Yet, even this did not guarantee her complete freedom.
After the Park Chung Hee regime came another military regime headed by Chun Doo-hwan, and Ms. Sim again encountered problems, albeit smaller ones, such as being forced to change the title of her song “Sun-ja’s Autumn” because Sun-ja was the name of Mr. Chun’s wife. The song was only about love, not politics, but Ms. Sim meekly changed the title to “I’ll Fall in Love This Autumn.”
Despite the odds, music was the only thing that Ms. Sim felt she could pursue. Born into a family with many Korean traditional musicians, Ms. Sim also was heavily influenced by her mother, who liked to listen to music, including enca.
Observing Ms. Sim as a newborn baby moving her toes to the rhythm of the songs being played, her mother decided to give her daughter opportunities to be close to music. Since the family could not afford private lessons or a piano, her mother brought Ms. Sim to a church that had a piano, walking about half an hour each way, so that the little girl could practice. This remains a fond memory from childhood for Ms. Sim.
Thus, it was natural for Ms. Sim to decide to devote her life to music, even after she graduated from Myongji University with a degree in business management. She made her debut, only to become part of a historical event, witnessing the president shot to death.
After releasing nine successful albums through the 1990s, however, Ms. Sim stopped in 2001. One day that year, out of the blue, she took a one-way flight to New York, where she stayed for three years. She needed a place to refresh her life as well as her career.
Taking courses in various musical genres, ranging from Afro-Cuban to jazz piano, Ms. Sim finally began to relax and indulge in things she liked as much as she wanted. “Everything was there in New York for me and my music,” Ms. Sim said.
Returning to Korea in 2004, she began to write the songs contained in a long-awaited album that was released late last month. Now, she is finding this is the busiest time of her 25-year career, as she goes about publicizing her albums, performing and preparing for upcoming concerts. For the first time in her career, she has hired an agent to arrange her schedule.
In the new album, which is titled “Kkot” (Flower), Ms. Sim’s fans can enjoy the broadened world of music that resulted from her sojourn in New York.
Along with past hits that have been edited into new versions with various styles like bossa nova, jazz and Korean traditional music, Ms. Sim also offers new songs, like “Namjaui Nara” (The Land of Men), in which she criticizes the male chauvinism of society in a metaphorical and poetic manner. All of this is quite a change in Ms. Sim’s music, yet her trademark nasal sound and plaintive tone are still there.
Although she is not completely free of the fetters of history, Ms. Sim is ready to make another start, with a number of future projects.
Next month, she will release an album of Christian contemporary music, since she’s a faithful follower of the religion. She also mentions her dream to open a jazz cafe in Seoul where she can enjoy playing jam sessions with fellow musicians. To prepare for this bright future, Ms. Sim, at home with her husband, a radio show producer at MBC, and three children, indulges in music, reading jazz-related books while running on a treadmill.
“I’m a singer. That’s a truth that never changes,” Ms. Sim said. “Although there was a time when I was forced not to sing for the public, that’s all in the past.”
by Chun Su-jin