Do you subscribe to the belief that “you never forget your first love”? It’s a lovely sentiment, but in reality not always true. We forget stuff all the time, including poignant memories such as a first love. [Like, I recently forgot I was married with kids, and attempted to buy a ticket to Japan to stalk a certain shiny, crooked toothy-grinned, newly muscular, spacey fluff-ball, only to regain my sanity memory, right before I clicked the Buy button. Disaster and marriage counseling averted].
Memory loss nothwithstanding, do you still remember the first time you de-lurked? In whatever context, whichever forum, you typed the first tentative comments about a drama that moved you. Armed with that little ounce of courage in announcing your presence in the drama-verse, I applaud you. This review has been inspired by the devotees of dramas world-wide.
When you really love something, you pour your heart and soul into it. And it shows. I want to share with you such a drama. From the first frame to the last lingering shot, every detail is exquisite, every emotion is genuine. While not the best drama I have ever watched, I absolutely, unequivocally, love it. [I once wrote that I loved a drama so much I wanted to marry it and have its babies. I probably have a tendency to be effusive, and I don't want to become the koala who cried wolf (every drama is the "Best Drama EVAR!!!"). I promise to fight my natural inclination to pile on the accolades, and try to be objective here].
Daring to write this review required an extra dose of courage. [Delicious, yummy-in-my-tummy, liquid courage – I’m sure Yo Gabba Gabba’s not going air an episode of this food group anytime soon]. I don’t believe I can possibly do this drama justice. But just like I de-lurked one summer day when a certain drama moved me to shout out my feelings in cyberspace like I suffered from Tourette’s, this drama has moved me to document my feelings for it. I don’t want to ever forget the experience of watching it, even when the memory inevitably dims and the feelings slowly dissipate.
This is a Story (of a lovely lady, who was gonna meet two devastatingly incredible guys):
To borrow some words from Mister X, who once said in an article about the history of sageuk in Korea: “But even more impressive was 2003’s Damo. The first ever Korean drama shot in HD (High Definition), the show….generated a massive online following and became one of the hottest talking points of the year. Although the story was fictional, the addition of Hong Kong-style wire action, the kind of melodrama typical of trendy dramas, and the traditional appeal of Korean history made it an unforgettable experience.”
Damo, the Undercover Lady Detective, has a title that doesn’t exact rope you in. Damo, what (or who) is a Damo? Undercover Lady Detective? Are we talking La Femme Nikita or Murder, She Wrote (thankfully, neither). I would have given it a splashier and more grandeur-inducing title, such as: Legend of the Lady Detective, Damo in the Wind, or Conspiracy in the Capital. [Do you like any of them? If you give me, oh, a few million dollars, I can probably rope samsooki into making a fusion sageuk outer-space K-drama using one of these titles].
But I can’t rename it, so let’s just give the ho-hum title a bye, shall we? [Remind me to have heart-to-heart with the dudes who name dramas. For example, a quick tour around the romance novel genre would illuminate the fact that folks are more inclined to read novels such as "A Duke's Seduction" as opposed to "The Girl Who Married a Rich Guy" (Steig Larsson can get away with this naming mechanism, K-dramas and romance novels cannot)].
At a brisk fourteen episodes, Damo is a lifetime of drama-telling in a blink of an eye. These few hours may just change your perception of intensity and pathos forever. So please don’t let a clunky title or some period garb stop you. Don’t be afraid of the stilted period speech or the prospect of episodes worth of machiavellian machinations taking place in stuffy rooms. Why don’t we take a quick tour of Damo (and no, it’s not a three-hour tour, so don’t worry, I’ll get you back in time). Perhaps you’ll like what you see, and stay for a cup of tea and some cake (by which I mean, some tea of tears and some crying cake).
Damo is a story about a woman, who lived her life with courage, dignity and resignation. She loved and was loved, by a man who lived his life with conviction and honor under the weight of his conflicted social status. Yet she also fell in love with another man, who lived his life preparing for a rebellion in the pursuit of equality and justice. This is their story, a tale of love and destiny, in an era where social chasms are as wide as the sea, where even love cannot outwit destiny.
Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to investigate (a conspiracy) we go:
The drama begins with a political conspiracy set in the Chosun era (late 16th century Korea). An unknown entity has unleashed a torrent of counterfeit coins into the marketplace, most likely in an attempt to undermine the economic stability of the current regime. The Left Police Bureau in the capital city is tasked with investigating this crime. The police must halt the proliferation of the coins at its source in order to restore stability to the populace.
What’s the problem with some counterfeit coins, you ask? Well, (1) it devalues the currency, and more pressingly, (2) it impedes trade as merchants are unable to accept currency at its face value. [Sorry, there were no credit cards back then, so it was either nyangs or nothing at all].
The detectives in the Left Police Bureau approach this investigation in a straightforward manner, steadily uncovering clue after clue, until they are blindsided by a swinging left hook. This criminal enterprise may not just a bunch of gangs looking to buy some Chosun-era pot for free. Evidence hints that these guys mean business, the business of a conspiracy to dethrone a King and/or overturn a morally decaying society. [And that, folks, is risky business indeed].
The counterfeit coins are intended to induce economic chaos, in addition to serving as funds to acquire weaponry for a rebel force. These rebels MUST be stopped. (Right?) And in the course of the investigation, our three leading characters find themselves inexorably tied up with this conspiracy (either to promulgate it or to stop it).
They also find themselves pitching a tent in Camp Love Triangle. [Hey, get your mind out of the gutter! This is a sageuk, the closest thing to skinship is when someone stares at someone else so intensely you half expect the clothes to melt right off - *ahem* this powerful laser eye vision was most recently unleashed by Bidam in Queen Seon Doek and Dae Gil in Chuno]. Who are our fated lovers? Let’s meet them, shall we?
Hey little lady, your life sure does suck, doesn’t it?:
Ha Ji Won is Chae Ohk, a Damo (a tea pourer in the the Police Bureau who also performs lady detective work). She is a servant with the social stature of a slave. [Thanks to Chuno, we’ve all recently gotten a lesson on oppressive slavery in the Chosun era, so I won’t belabor the point; other than to say Chae Ohk has more dirt on her left butt cheek than Un Nyun had on her entire body, and never have I been so glad to see my leading lady look luminously dirty].
Chae Ohk was born Jang Jae Hui, the daughter of an aristocratic family. Her family is splintered when her father is executed for suggesting radical government reforms. Her brother escaped the massacre, but she is not so lucky. Jae Hui is taken to be a servant girl for the illegitimate son of another aristocratic family. With resignation and resolve, Jae Hui forges a meaningful existence as fate as transformed her from lady to slave.
Accompanying her young master (whom Jae Hui addresses as Naeuri, an honorific used to refer to people of higher status) to train under the tutelage of a revered martial arts expert, Jae Hui also learns extraordinary fighting expertise (also known as kick-ass wuxia skillz). Her Naueri’s martial arts prowess earns him entry into the Left Police Bureau to take the position of a Police Captain, and he gains permission to bring Jae Hui along as a Damo. [Before entering the Police Bureau, Jae Hui is given a new name, Chae Ohk, by her martial arts master, to prevent any association with her now ignomious birth family - I will also stick to calling her Chae Ohk from now on].
Beautiful and reserved Chae Ohk is beloved by everyone in the Left Police Bureau. Our introduction to Chae Ohk shows that she is intelligent and resourceful, kind and loyal (yes, yes, I know I’m making her sound like a Golden Retriever, but I don’t mean to; Chae Ohk is awesome, how ’bout we leave it at that). Chae Ohk remains a slave at heart and in reality, unable to reach out and openly reciprocate the love showered upon her. Especially not the love shown to her by this man.
If a sucky life means you meet, grow up with, and walk alongside this utterly perfect hunk of a man, then I demand some SUCK right now:
Chae Ohk’s Naeuri is Hwangbo Yoon, played by Lee Seo Jin. As a boy struggling with his illegitimate status (born of a liaison between a noble and his mistress), Yoon seethes with anger at a world which doesn’t allow him either to be a noble or a commoner. Teetering at the brink of despair, teenage Yoon encounters this little wisp of a girl, who in a blink of an eye lost everything she has ever known. In a startling moment of connection forged by having nothing to hold on to except each other, Yoon and Chae Ohk become each other’s source of strength and solace.
Yoon takes on the role of Chae Ohk’s father, mother, brother, best friend, and Naeuri, and cherishes and values her above all else. In any other K-drama, Chae Ohk and Yoon would be able to declare their love for each other (though not before battling witchy mothers, golf-club wielding fathers, jealous third wheels, a bout of cancer, a brush with leukemia, a kidnapping plot, a few airport goodbyes, and end up together after calling it a day). But trapped in a Chosun society governed by rigid class distinctions, Chae Ohk hesitates to even look her Naeuri in the eye because of their disparate social status, must less admit that she loves him.
Oh, these poor kids. Their love, forged from a childhood spent fighting to find a foothold in this cruel society, cannot even be spoken, much less acted upon. All Chae Ohk can do is be the gosh darn bestest Damo this side of the police bureau line, and help her Naeuri achieve respect and upward mobility. That is the only way for her to express her love.
For that love alone, Chae Ohk volunteers to go undercover into the rebel gang to solve the counterfeit case for her Naeuri. [She clearly trained at the K-Drama School for Self-Sacrifice during her spare time. Her follow students include, in order of the degree of self-sacrifice, Hyun Bin in everything he did for everyone in Ireland, Geum Soon who gave a kidney to the mother who abandoned her, and the second lead in Stairway to Heaven who killed himself so he could donate his eyeballs to Choi Ji Woo. Every student at that school is stupid enough to think that “I’m breaking up with you for your own good” is a refrain from Amazing Grace].
Yoon can only watch as the woman he cherishes above all else undertakes a dangerous mission on his behalf, when all he wants to do is protect her. He reluctantly allows her go, because otherwise would be to strip Chae Ohk of the last shred of self-worth and personal choice she has. [But c'mon, Chae Ohk-ah. I wish you would have trained to be a Top Chef instead, so your life's ambition is to cook for your Naeuri. Cuz this spy shit you are doing, is driving that man batty and into early retirement]. When Chae Ohk enters the rebel camp, her suspended relationship with Yoon comes up against the inevitable force of change, in the form of a rebel with a cause.
This is what happens when your sucky and orderly life runs headlong into a man tornado (a manado?):
Chae Ohk successfully infiltrates the rebel gang’s mountain hideaway, where in the course of her investigation, she encounters Jang Sung Baek, played by Kim Min Joon. Sung Baek is a man shrouded in mystery, who has found himself drawn to Chae Ohk from the very first time they meet.
Sung Baek possesses equally impressive martial arts skills comparable to Yoon, along with a passionate conviction for equality. [Yoon and Sung Baek are really two sides of the same coin, using different means to serve the same goal: justice]. On one hand, Sung Baek minsters to a village of lepers without flinching, yet turns around and kills government agents impeding his rebellion without a backward glance. Sung Baek operates outside of the law but within his own ethical code. [Kinda like a Chosun Dark Knight].
Against her will, he also intrigues Chae Ohk from the very first time they meet. [Normally, I'd be all, oooooh, love at first sight, how romantic, blahblahblah. But I'm not boarding that ship just yet (even though Chae Ohk and Sung Baek have mad mad hot hot chemistry), because I've already bought a ticket on the Good Ship Naeuri, sister-ship to the Good Ship Lollipop].
He represents an uncontrollable and unpredictable threat to Chae Ohk. Both her and Yoon’s life would be in danger if they cannot stop the counterfeit operation (and the even more alarming incipient rebellion). Yet Chae Ohk cannot bring herself to stop Sung Baek when she can see how he is motivated by decency and righteousness (even if his methods may be wrong). By entering into the mountain camp of the rebels, and getting to know the people who survive on the outskirts of society, she is forced to question her once unassailable belief that the Police Bureau represents right and the rebels represent wrong.
Chae Ohk also discovers that Sung Baek means more to her than she could ever countenance or envision. She cannot bring herself to destroy Sung Baek and his band of rebels. Because of this moment of hesitation, Chae Ohk sets into motion Act II of Damo. Which I shall henceforth deem, “These Are The Best Six Episodes of Drama You May Ever Watch In Your Life.”
And with that, off you go now. There is nothing else to read here if you want to know what happens next. No further plot points shall be divulged by me. I wish I was doing it solely for your benefit, but it’s mostly for mine. I can’t write about the second half of Damo without falling into fits of gasping, clenching, and sobbing. So throw me a bone, dear readers, won’t you? Oh, but you want more? Pretty please with a cherry on top? (Mmmmm, cherry……) Well, if you throw in some chocolate and whip cream, I guess I can talk about the non-plot related stuff without melting down.
Show me the pretty!:
Damo is one of the prettiest period dramas I have ever watched (sageuk or wuxia). The cinematography is both expansive and intimate, drawing you into each scene with equal parts technique and heart. [The PD also did Fashion 70s – which was also a gorgeously shot drama that taught me to scream BIN! at the top of my lungs in hopes that Chun Jung Myung would suddenly show up, drop his pants and change into a wetsuit, or vice-versa].
The PD innovatively combines fast-moving camera work atypical for sageuks with the traditional sageuk static shots to create a presentation that feels fresh without being freaky (i.e. the characters don’t turn into Zorro and ride a fake horse, but the characters do engage in some period-acceptable wire-fu).
Damo is the most wuxia of all the sageuks I have ever watched. At the time of its airing, the martial arts element was yet unused in a sageuk. [Whereas nowadays, we're used to half-naked slave hunters fighting in slow motion, or a Sexy Bastard singlehandedly kung-fu-fighting an entire Shilla army for a final chance to pour his heart out to an impassive Queen].
The action choreography in Damo (to a wuxia addict like me) is rather rudimentary and somewhat clunky. The fighting scenes lack the crisp execution I’m accustomed to from wuxia dramas, but the PD’s excellent camera work goes a long way in making up for it. It was a giant step forward in introducing this action element into a sageuk, and for that it deserves some leeway from my snarky critiques. [Plus, Ha Ji Won, waving a big sword. So sexy, is all I have to say. Also, Yoon does some topless sword training for no discerable reason. Yay for fanservice!].
Damo fully utlilizes the gorgeous natural scenary of Korea (if it was shot at some folk village tourist trap, it certainly NEVER looks like it), in equal measure with the more intimate town and interior scenes commonly seen in sageuks. The camerawork effortlessly complements the tenor of each scene. Fast-paced action and investigation scenes are shot with corresponding urgency and movement, whereas the camera remains still and gentle in the emotionally heavy scenes to allow the actors the full canvas to practice their craft.
With such a short length, Damo never wastes a single scene. We don’t linger unnecessarily long with exposition, rather plot is driven though action rather than words. The PD masterfully mixes action scenes with moments of introspection, leaving me awed by the skill needed to achieve such balance.
Damo has one of the best staging of the quintessential kids’ portion of a sageuk. The flashback scenes are scattered throughout the early episodes of the drama, so we never get bored with the kids’ stories while waiting for the adults to show up (which is a crutch that often plagues many sageuks).
The brief yet powerful scenes showing Chae Ohk’s childhood as a noble daughter, and her transformation into a servant girl, is presented with precise efficiency. Her horrible plight is not milked for sentimentality, but is shown as suddenly as her fate must have been for her. Teenage Yoon’s struggle to reconcile his in-between class status is similarly given its acknowledgment, and then we move on. Your heart breaks for young Chae Ohk and Yoon, who meet only through mutual suffering caused by their birth, yet find solace in each other.
While Sung Baek’s purpose behind the rebellion appears rather palatable to us by the time we are shown his backstory, it nevertheless is painful to see what tragedy must have befallen this man to motivate him to launch a rebellion. We empathize with why Sung Baek became a man consumed with anger at society, leading to his rise as the Rebel Leader. At the same time, we are made aware of how dangerous Sung Baek’s rebellion can be to the innocent folks caught up in the aftermath.
The PD never pours on the maudlin sentiments and the mawkish woe-is-me scenes. If you cry watching Damo (and you WILL cry, unless your heart turned to stone years ago after watching all four of the Seasons dramas), it’s because the incredible acting and the gutwrenching story touches your heart, not because the PD beat you over the head with his giant crying stick. [I have no compunction with beating folks over the head with my giant watching stick - You. Must. Watch. This. Drama. is what I say when I'm beating you for your own good. The victim is usually my poor sister].
Damo’s style is flashy, but it never strikes you as vacant. It’s gorgeous visual are not meant to compensate for a lack of story, but to elevate what is by itself an already epic story.
Hey writer, you are so fine, you are so fine you blow my mind:
I started off my review by emphasizing that Damo is first and foremost about “the story”. It’s not an exercise in presentation, an attempt to challenge conventional sageuks, a meaningless foray into existential angst, or even a credibly constructed melodrama intended to make you cry so hard you don’t have time to question the pointlessness of the so-called plot.
Damo flows like strokes of an ink brush as it tenderly scratches the surface of a blindingly white piece of paper. Each stroke is itself a movement of beauty, but once you step back to view the finished product, what remains is a cohesive masterpiece. Like when pen and paper complement each other seamlessly, the PD and the writer did so as well.
The writer crafted a interweaving tale combining political intrigue, societal commentary, and a compelling love triangle. The heart of the story is Chae Ohk’s fall from privilege and rise to grace, how Yoon claws and wills his way to achieve his purpose in life, and whether Sung Baek can free a society from its self-imposed constraints. The mechanics of the plot remain the political conspiracy, which is intriguing in its own right, though a tad underwhelming. The writer judiciously balances the story-driven elements alongside the emotional beats.
The writer deftly builds the anticipation not by concealing key information, but by revealing game-changing information unexpectedly early. How does that leave the viewer in suspense, you may ask? It forces us to be powerless voyeurs watching an inevitable collision. I was left with my jaw-hanging whenever the writer conducts a course-correction, and the story takes yet another left turn. The counterfeit money conspiracy merely acts as a placeholder to intertwine our fated trio. The story development flows naturally from there when the emotional quotient is upped as the drama progresses.
On the surface, the dialogue is quietly efficient and effective. A deeper glance finds that it is often rife with double-meaning, comical in moments needed to interject some levity, and above all else, moving and lyrical. There are certain scenes where I was just gob-struck by the force of the words being said combined with the emotional acting, so much so that I had to pause and take deep breaths before continuing with my watch. [For those of you who have seen Damo, let me just call out three such scenes by location in a non-spoilery way: the Cave scene, the subsequent Tent scene, and the pivotal Beach scene - yeah, I was crying out loud, not just rolling silent tears, I was sobbing like a baby].
By using minimal dialogue, the writer allows the actors to use their talents to convey the emotion behind the language. When the characters do say something out loud, bam!, it’s like getting steam-rolled by a two-by-four. Leaving the viewer dumbstruck by what is happening onscreen.
When someone says “you can have my body, but you can never have my heart”, or when someone says “If I don’t come back on my own feet, don’t come looking for me”, these are some of the unforgettable lines of dialogue created by this writer. [And the writer does even more with scenes when someone DOESN'T say anything at all, such as the scene when someone puts a hand over another person's mouth to prevent that person from calling out, what is not said becomes the hammer that hits you with the significance of the moment].
This writer went on to write the mega-sageuk Jumong (all 218 episodes of it…..what’s that you say, it was only 81 episodes, well, it sure felt like a few hundred days of my life had passed when I finished watching it). Damo may have been the writer’s warm-up routine, but I find it the superior work. To tell an epic tale, you don’t need a surplus of words, a grand set up, or a lengthy story. The most memorable of stories can be the vignettes that capture a small image with startling clarity. And that is the genuis in the storytelling of Damo.
Did I just hear my heart breaking into a million little pieces?:
Damo has an unexpected and challenging soundtrack that deserves a section devoted just to discussing it. It aired back in 2003 (when women wore leg warmers and men dressed like they were going moon-walking, oh oops, that was 1983, my bad), and what we now widely accept as fusion-sageuks as a genre didn’t exist yet. It was either the old stodgy sageuk or bust. [I think the stodgy sageuk took it's last breath when it met it's rapscallion bastard grandsons, Iljimae and Chil Woo].
The music in Damo is a giant clue this is not your grandma’s sageuk. It is a breath of fresh air, seemingly out-of-place yet strangely appropriate. Damo utilizes a blend of techno-esque musical scores cross-cut with traditional ballad fare. Fast-paced background music pared with action sequences transition smoothly into soulful and solemn pieces during the tender moments. The lovely ballads heighten the pain and longing our Chae Ohk feels towards her Naeuri and her Rebel Leader.
The music is rarely instrusive but always complementary. It will linger with you after you finish a scene, like the soft scent left behind by a wafting perfume. Even now as I write, the melody hums itself in my mind, imprinted ever so securely in my consciousness, daring me not to choke back a sob at the recollection of the beauty of a corresponding scene in the drama. But the music doesn’t dictate the mood, serving only to elevate the powerful acting of the lead actors.
Love Triangle? More like the Bermuda Triangle of Love:
Ha Ji Won’s performance as Jae Hui/Chae Ohk is a word: magnificent. This girl has the courage to fight her way to see the King to save her Naeuri, yet cannot bring herself to openly reciprocate his love. Society has decreed that she is nothing but a servant, lower than a pig or a dog. So Chae Ohk has wrapped her emotions under layers and layers of self-restraint. She doesn’t even dare hope for happiness in her life. The only power she possesses is to do anything to assist her Naeuri, including risking her life. Which happens to be the very last thing he wants her to do.
And Ha Ji Won nails this simmering repression in the first half of the drama. Chae Ohk may willingly bow to servitude, but her heart remains a bird wrestling to be free. Many of the disagreements between Chae Ohk and Yoon stem from Chae Ohk’s impetuousness to solve a case without regard for her own safety, and that infuriates her Naeuri who values her safety above all else. [Seriously, these two star-crossed lovers are doing everything they can for each other, and pissing the other person off even more in the process. I wish they would just get a room. But, I know, I know, that darn class barrier thingie is a chastity belt around her waist. I only wish I could find the key and set them free.....].
Chae Ohk’s encounter with Sung Baek gradually releases her emotions, which she has deeply suppressed for her Naeuri. She gets to know this Rebel Leader, brimming with passion and conviction. It’s no surprise that she is attracted to this man who is as wild as her Naeuri is restrained. Without Chae Ohk even realizing it, the dam in her heart has broken free, and instead of rushing towards the man she has loved her entire life, her love seemingly flows towards Sung Baek. Ha Ji Won deftly portrays a woman who is consumed by longing and betrayed by her own heart.
Lee Seo Jin gave a commanding performance as Hwangbo Yoon, a man of strength and resolve. Yoon is the less flashy of the two male leads, but his was the character that stayed with me long after I finished this drama (and I had never seen him before prior watching Damo). His love for Chae Ohk was pure and deep, and truly touched my heart.
He never once hides how he feels about her (um, you have to be blind, deaf, and dead not to feel the awesome rays of LOVE emanating from that man to the women he has loved for fifteen years). Yet he cannot alter the course of their destiny to remain merely Naeuri and Damo. He may risk everything to be with her, but Chae Ohk will not risk his future to be with him (for once, her self-sacrifice is truly noble and makes SENSE, as opposed to pointless and WTF). Until it is too late, and Chae Ohk has inextricably allowed another man into her heart.
Kim Min Joon as Jang Sung Baek, the rebel commander, was the maelstrom that threatened to destroy the tenuous stability Yoon and Chae Ohk (and all of Chosun society) has established. He essayed the heat, the hidden rage, the smoldering intensity, of a man with a singular purpose. He wants to destroy an establishment that has subjugated and abused its people.
Damo was Kim Min Joon’s promising acting debut. While Kim Min Joon occasionally over-acted, and appeared a bit rough around the edges as compared to Lee Seo Jin’s performance, he nevertheless succeeded in creating a credible and meaningful rival character. He had so much natural chemistry with Ha Ji Won, I’m surprised no one has yet reunited them on screen again.
The majority of the scenes between our three leads are Chae Ohk with either Sung Baek or Yoon. I am still breathless recalling the many moments that have these three amazing actors elevating their performance to higher and higher levels of Bring It On. And Chae Ohk is caught between these two men. [Why is it I’m never at the center of a love sandwich? *stomps feet and runs off to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Choco Moco Cocoa*].
When Chae Ohk is with Yoon, their love for each other may be heartwrenching, but he also represents the establishment. Society decrees that Chae Ohk is less than slave, and being with Yoon means that she can never escape these chains because Yoon operates and lives within the establised norms.
While Chae Ohk is tasked with stopped Sung Baek, she is attracted to his quest for equality. His goal may represent freedom for Chae Ohk from her hopeless situation. Choosing Yoon means that Chae Ohk would drag him down to her level. Choosing Sung Baek means becoming an outlaw. Yet becoming an outlaw may be the only hope for Chae Ohk to shed the shackles of her indentured servitude.
Who does she choose? Who does she love? And can she love one man, yet be in love with the other? Will Chae Ohk choose a guy based on whether he is the one she loves, or whether being with him represents a more palatable choice between the two? And what if she is in love with the wrong guy?
All these are very good questions, and will be answered, but not by me. I merely laid out for you the central complications. You need to watch and form your own opinion (but come back and tell me what you think, okay?). What makes Damo so impactful was the winning combination of acting, directing, writing, and scoring. If I summarize the story in one paragraph for you (which I can do), it negates all that makes Damo an unforgettable watch.
Someone borrowed a Hot-Tub Time Machine, because these here folks are surely zapped from the past!:
Beyond our leading threesome of hotness, the ensemble cast of Damo included some of the most memorable side characters I’ve ever encountered in any sageuk. From the police detectives in the Left Police Bureau to the rotund scholar who admires Chae Ohk, from the insecure and uptight Right Police Bureau Captain to the thieving couple who assists the undercover operation, each of these characters feel like living, breathing constructs from an earlier era.
The drama does not manufacture characters to play such stock caricatures of The Villain, The Bumbling Idiot, The Inept Sidekick, or The Wise Old Mage. Everyone has a purpose in Damo, and their struggles and their actions feel authentic to the era and serve to propel the story forward. You will feel like you stepped right into 16th century Chosun as a voyeur into the life and struggles of ordinary and extraordinary people.
Your heart will ache for the common folks, whether living in the lowest rungs of society or in a rebel camp on the periphery, as they are born only to toil and die after having lived a hard life. Your mind will understand, if not condone, the concerns of the nobles, who seek to maintain a tenuous control over a society already structured by their predecessors. You will watch these celluloid people, yet walk away feeling like you’ve lived and breathed the world of Damo.
I only have time for a special shout-out to two rare 4th and 5th fiddles who stood out in a story littered with exceptional character creations. Lady Nan Hee is the daughter of Yoon’s commanding officer, and she is openly and quietly in love with Yoon. She is completely aware that Yoon is in love with Chae Ohk, and can see how much Chae Ohk also loves Yoon. However, she knows that they cannot choose each other, and she realistically asks Yoon to choose her so that he can attain even greater societal ranking.
When Lady Nan Hee tells Chae Ohk to remain by Yoon’s side after their marriage, because Yoon would never be happy if he cannot see his Chae Ohk, this Lady officially broke my heart. I both admire and weep for her selflessness when love is noticeably always a selfish endeavor, especially amongst K-drama second female leads, who take refusal to accept rejection to new levels of self-absorption. [Though I must warn you all that Lady Nan Hee is played by the same actress who Wish Upon a Star watchers have wished to perdition in Hades and back again, so tread with caution. She was, nevertheless, wonderful in Damo].
The second scene-stealing side character is Ahn Byung Taek, the son of an administrative officer in the Left Police Bureau. Byung Taek’s devotion to Chae Ohk is both childishly outlandish yet hauntingly sweet. Byung Taek may not be a noble’s son, but Chae Ohk as a Damo is still far below his marriage prospects. Yet in a matter of fact way, Byung Taek is the only person who openly doesn’t give a fig about class barriers. Rather, he works hard to make HIMSELF worthy of Chae Ohk, by taking the military service exam to become a military officer (the scenes of Byung Taek taking the military service exam and failing miserably on an comically inept scale are uproarious). 1, 2, 3, all together now – *awwwwwww* what an adorable boy.
Byung Taek is open, sincere, and straightforward in his pursuit of Chae Ohk. He stands in stark contrast to Yoon and Sung Baek, two men who with a flick of their wrist can snuff the life out of this buffoonish guy, yet they cannot match his fearlessness in pursuing the person he loves.
Lady Nan Hee and Byung Taek are the ideal reality for Yoon’s and Chae Ohk’s future, had Sung Baek had not entered into the picture. It’s not a bad reality, all things considering, to be with a decent honorable person who loves you so unconditionally. [Hello? Lady Nan Hee just hand picked her future husband's mistress, and welcomed her into their home. Yeah, 'nuff said].
Unfortunately, fate doesn’t just screw with our leads once (by turning Chae Ohk from a noble daughter into a slave, by making Yoon an illegitimate son with no place in either noble or commoner class, and by making Sung Baek so angry at society he’s willing to destroy it to save the oppressed). Fate comes back to play a second round “high five, down low, too slow!” with these poor souls. You can never win a game with Fate, as our leads will soon discover.
Fate – you spin me right round, baby, right round:
Regardless of all the discussion surrounding she-loves-him-he-loves-her-she-also-loves-him, Damo is a story where Love actually takes a backseat to Fate (though since the drama is like a zippy Smart car, it’s more like Love and Fate are squeezed really close together, but Fate’s got the steering wheel).
Damo-lovers are routinely split into two camps: Team Naeuri FTW! and Team Rebel Leader 4ever! But these two camps co-exist happily in a blissful commune of hippie love, rather than the teeth-bared claws-sharpened OTP fight to the finish battle lines drawn debate (which recently so bedeviled Chuno).
The reason why Naeuri and Rebel Leader shippers feel mutual kinship is because each side completely gets the other side’s undying devotion to their guy. Simply put: Yoon and Sung Baek are both exceptional heroes: righteous and honorable, faithful and forgiving. You won’t find your typical K-drama second fiddle in these parts of the woods. Damo’s man candy are both paragons of virtue and manhood (and we’re only too happy to leave two equally messed up leading men to What Happened in Bali).
Yoon and Sung Baek are equal male leads, getting virtually the same amount of screen time. Their backstories are also given similar reverence and due. Their romantic relationship with Chae Ohk, however different in emotional context, is allowed to develop organically and with tenderness. So Chae Ohk loves both men, and all Damo-lovers likely also worship both men if you asked us. However, drama-watching does require that we ultimately make a choice. So while we do, it’s not at the expense of the other guy.
[When I watched Damo, I was Team Rebel Leader for a good two-thirds of the drama, only to switch to Team Naeuri for the final third of the journey. It wasn't a decision made based on who was hotter, who loved Chae Ohk more, or who was a better choice for Chae Ohk. It was a decision made because there was a startling moment of clarity for me during one key scene when I was like, this is IT, my heart just broke into a million and one little pieces for this man, and yes, it broke into a million pieces for the other guy just a few scenes earlier, but damnit, I gotta make a choice and this is it. Naeuri-ahhhhhhh....].
I walked a lifetime with you. I walked a lifetime just to find you. Do I have to make a choice now?:
A good drama-watching friend once said, and I paraphrase, “if it’s a sageuk, the body count is gonna be high, so brace yourself”(credit to momosan). Woah, did I just give away the ending there? No, silly. You know I hate to spoil endings for you (soon, my chingus, soon I will write a review where I will happily scream out the ending right off the bat: “And they end up living happily ever after!”).
Sageuks aim to achieve an ending that is a satisfactory release. Main characters living or dying in a sageuk is less shocking or important than why they died or how they went on to live. [For example, as a card-carrying member of Team Naeuri, I would be sadder if my Naeuri lived but could not be with his Chae Ohk, more so than if my Naeuri died].
Damo starts off with the last scene of the drama, so the ending does not come as a big surprise to anyone. Normally I dislike this narrative choice, as it can suck out all the tension in a story. [Jamyunggo, I'm talking to you]. By commencing with the battle in the bamboo forest, Damo elects to tell us that something has gone horribly wrong, and takes you on the journey to get back to that bamboo forest.
All I can say is that two people who love each other are dueling in that bamboo forest, and the third person is nowhere to be found. Raw emotions are pulsating from that scene as if all the air has been sucked out of the atmosphere, and the participants in that battle cannot even take a single breath. You are captivated right away. Then the narrative moves back to the beginning of story, and that scene remains at the forefront of your mind.
You walk alongside Chae Ohk, Yoon and Sung Baek as they pull closer and push even further apart. Until, before you know it, we’re back at that bamboo forest. By then it will feel like a lifetime ago that you first watched the same scene with only mild curiosity and awe. Now you will watch the same scene with all the blood in your heart pumping and your tears flowing, crying silently or out loud: “why, oh God, why?” You will have all the answers laid out before you, but it won’t stop the hurt you feel, stem the desire you have to soothe away the pain, to solve the impasse the characters have come to.
By the end of the drama, Fate will have said to Love: “I’m sorry I jerked the rug out from under you, Love. You were always a pure emotion, untainted by prejudice, by fear, by oppression. But I stuck my big foot in my mouth, and didn’t tell everyone all the information they needed to understand why one person loved another. So I made a mess of everything. For that I shall shoulder all the blame. But, Love, even if I told them everything, could it have still worked out? I don’t think so, Love. So this ending was a bittersweet release. Please, Love, can you put that cleaver down, and let’s talk like two rational concepts. Back away, Love, back away slowly…..”
I was satisfied with the ending of Damo (though satisfied feels like such a lightweight emotion). It could not end any other way. The ending is so beautiful that you weep both tears of joy and sorrow. Though I will say that the ending makes it very clear: Chae Ohk can love both men, but she can only be in love with one man.
When I finished Damo, I was emotionally spent. An empty husk, left staring at the ceiling wondering what had just happened to me. I treat drama watching as pure entertainment, asking nothing more than it should be enjoyable. [And if a drama or movie stars my I Lub You or a certain Pi, then whatever remaining threadbare standards are chucked right out the window, and I will happily watch certifiable crap].
I rarely feel so invested in anything I watch, tears and recriminations are for pansies, I say. Damo has made me eat my words. Today I announce that I am a pansy of the first order, and proud of it.
Brother/Sister, can you spare fourteen hours?:
I am hard-wired to love a well-made saguek, a predilection borne of a lifetime of wuxia drama and movie watching. Damo, and perhaps the sageuk genre in general, may not be your cup of tea like it is mine. Many sageuks are exceedingly lengthy, requiring watch commitments that last longer than most Match.com relationships. I concede that nothing I can say may tempt you to watch Damo, and that’s cool with me. I just wanted a chance to share a rare drama that moved me from the bottom of normally my stone-cold heart. And that drama just happened to be a sageuk.
I can’t say I’m surprised. Sagueks by nature of its period setting, heightened moral and/or ethical obstructions, and aura of danger (You can die! Like, anytime!), already starts off with an extra dose of tension. Every tiny detail matters in a sageuk, one wrong decision can have devastating consequences. Watching something that can never happen real life, the sense of wonder and pathos is intensified. The viewer watches with bated breath, worried not that the hero and heroine may miss each other when the elevator door closes a second too quickly, but worried that the hero may accidentally KILL the heroine who is infiltrating the hero’s rebel organization.
See, aren’t the stakes that much higher? [Which is why many veteran sageuk-watchers are the first to lose patience with trendy dramas and it's rather trivial reasons for why a couple cannot be together: boy's mom tried to steal girl's dad from her mom = can't be together *rolls eyes*, boy hired girl to pretend to be his missing sister = can't be together *huh? did you not write the memo yourself, boy, she is NOT your sister.*, girl once had an extra-marital affair and miscarried a baby with boy's brother-in-law = can't be together *okay, this one is dicey, and messy, so reason acceptable to me*, etc.]. The complications facing both sets of OTPs in Damo are (perhaps) insurmountable, even if I sprinkle my “everything-will-be-okay” fairy dust on them. What can you do when even screaming “just get together already, who cares about all that!” at the screen is no longer enough?
I needed some direction to write this review (and temper my first instinct to just type thisdramaisamazingsogowatchitrightnow, over and over again, Shining style). So I polled a few close friends about their first response when I said the word “Damo.” The results were pretty much derivations of the following single reaction: *loud plaintive wails of pain* followed by either shouts of NAEURI or REBEL LEADER, and then silence (which I take to mean the person has curled up into a ball rocking back and forth on the floor).
Yes, I know this sounds dramatic, and as always we are having a bit of excess fun. But the universal reaction is 100% genuine: every person I know who has watched Damo was moved by it. And that speaks for itself.
Damo is only fourteen episodes (two episodes shorter than the average K-drama rom-com). It’s actually tailor made to welcome a newbie sageuk watcher (and to lure in wuxia drama watchers with its combination of action scenes with the typical saguek historical exposition). I may not have a life, but I’m sure you all do. Thankfully, checking out Damo won’t leave you wondering why Summer has turned into Fall once you emerge from the sageuk cocoon.
Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you: if you’ve never watched a sageuk, Damo might just be the perfect entry into this genre for you. If you’ve watched sageuks before, then it’s high time you watched what some folks consider one of the best sageuks ever made (me, me, that would be me! And Thundie! And me. My vote counts double because I wrote this review).
I don’t know how to say goodbye, so I’ll let these words say it for me:
The poem below flashes after the very last scene in Damo. These seven lines encapsulate the entire drama in its spare words. And with this poem, I shall conclude this review by letting these words wash over this lovely story.
A far off mountain…
A mountain with a deep green forest…
A destiny…that could not foresee that divide
A love I could not measure…
A love that tore my heart apart…
Not again… never again…
Do not live for me…
Damo is about love in its purest form, as exhibited in various ways by many of the characters (unlike a certain other drama I recently wrote a review for, which delves into love in its darkest, most selfish form). To Chae Ohk, what she feels for Yoon is “a love I cannot measure”, how she feels for Sung Baek is “a love that tore my heart apart.” But their life and love is governed by “a destiny…that could not foresee that divide.” The only thing left for each person to say to the one he/she loves is “do not live for me.”
Ultimately, who Chae Ohk loves (more), which couple finds their happily ever after, which guy is most compatible with Chae Ohk, none of these questions matter in the least. You will walk away from Damo with a certain perspective about the emotion we call love: the selflessness of love means that everything can be sacrified in the name of loving someone, but the selfishness of love means that love itself should never be sacrificed.
With that, I shall bid you adieu. Until next time, my friends. After this review, I don’t need a cold shower. I need a stiff drink, plus a giant group hug. Team Naeuri Unite! [To that one lone person on Team Rebel Leader, you can have your “so wrong, it’s right” call to arms. Team Naeuri is so right, it’s just right. When you’re ready to join us, we’ve got a nice cushy pillow seat waiting for you].
And come to think of it, my next review probably should be a drama the exact opposite of Damo, because I think I burned though a few years of my life to churn this out. Maybe Boys Before Flowers or Witch Amusement? What do you think? At least I can start off with the happily ever after line, right? [On second thought, nah. I usually re-watch a drama before writing a review, and I’ll be killing some brain cells (due to repeated headdesking) if I watch either of those dramas again].
It’s been a pleasure sharing Damo with you. I can’t wait to hear what you all have to share with me about this touching and memorable drama.