Damo – Episode 1
Something about fall puts me in the mood for sageuk. SO many episodes, though! Do I want to be watching the same drama until spring? But I found just the thing in my DramaFever queue.
Damo (다모), an MBC drama from 2003, is positively petite by sageuk standards, at a mere 14 episodes. I’m curious to see some of Lee Seo Jin’s earlier work, and I always appreciate a storyline that revolves around a Spunky Heroine.
SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you haven’t watched yet
The first episode opens with an aerial swordfight in a bamboo forest between Ha Ji Won and Kim Min Joon. But why does he smile tenderly at her between feints? Then Ha Ji Won slices his shoulder and he stops smiling. They settle to the ground, where they rest back to back, while she asks, “were you trying to kill me?” to which he replies cryptically that he already killed her.
Then the cavalry arrives and runs him down until, arrow pierced and outnumbered, he turns to face his doom. In a voiceover conversation, he proclaims that he’ll live on in the minds of the downtrodden, so we know he’s a revolutionary. His only regret has something to do with Ha Ji Won, who steps forward on cue (how did she catch up with all those guys on horseback, I wonder?), and claims the right to personally kill him. He disarms her, they struggle for his sword, and somebody stabs somebody, but we don’t quite see who, because this is the ending, and we have to start at the beginning.
The rest of the episode sets the scene in the late 17th century Joseon Era, and introduces us to police chief Hwangbo Yoon (Lee Seo Jin) and his crew. This includes Damo (tea servant) Jang Chae Ohk (Ha Ji Won), who is smarter, more diligent and braver than all of the male officers put together. In the first 20 minutes, she uses astute observation and clever strategizing to solve a murder, then disables the fleeing culprit with a high-powered towel slap. But we already know she can fly, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
She’s rather hotheaded and confrontational, however. Not that I blame her, but it puts Hwangbo, as her boss, in a spot. When she offends the wrong guy, she and Hwangbo bicker about which of them will take the blame to protect the other. A scary near miss is followed by an iconic scene of romantic bandaging in a moonlit orchard among the falling cherry blossoms.
Clearly there is a strong bond and a lot of backstory between them, but it’s hard to tell exactly what they feel for each other. She is devoted to him, but she seems too ready to leave him for his own good to be in love with him. I was expecting to see a younger and less assured Lee Seo Jin, but it looks like I’ll have to go farther back in his career for that. He is perfect as a man of restrained (yet still evident) passions, under a veneer of gravitas. Whatever he feels, he channels it all into a protectiveness which is at odds with Chae Ohk’s position (not to mention her temperament). They are both stubborn, and friction ensues.
Later, Chae Ohk and the officers are sent off separately to investigate a growing problem with counterfeiters in different provinces. Chae Ohk, traveling as a boy, encounters Kim Min Joon at a ferry dock. She’s about to confront a noble who pulls rank without regard for an ailing child. Kim Min Joon steps in to handle the situation more diplomatically. He has spotted her gender, and seems to know other things about her, too, though she doesn’t appear to recognize him.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Lee Seo Jin lets down his hair, throws off his shirt, and engages in some distracted swordfighting practice. We are pretty distracted ourselves, but we can tell he is worrying about Chae Ohk. Two other officers return to give their report. All three of them are panting like marathon runners, and one of the newcomers is also distracted by shirtless Lee Seo Jin, completely forgetting his line until Hwangbo looks at him meaningfully. Oh, right, counterfeiters. But where is Chae Ohk??
Although I started watching Damo on DramaFever, I had a lot of trouble with hide-and-seek subtitles (especially during the romantic bandaging scene). You can check out missed lines on the subtitles tab next to the episode list, but that gets old fast, so I decided to try Hulu.
Not only were the subs better timed, I was shocked to discover at least two extra scenes that had been absent from the DramaFever version of the episode, including aforementioned shirtless sword practice scene. Now who on earth thought THAT was a good scene to cut?! Someone without hormones, apparently.
Normally, I’m a big fan of Drama Fever, since it caters specifically to Korean drama lovers, but for this drama, I have to recommend Hulu instead. Down side: a lot more commercials, unless you’re a paying customer.
Hangeul in this episode
I’ve decided to integrate Hangeul study into my drama posts. 나으리 (naeuri), which you’ll hear frequently in Damo, is spelled in Hangeul exactly as you would expect. I love it when that happens, don’t you? And you never know when you’re going to need to address somebody as “your lordship” in archaic Korean, right?
The long version of this word (which can also be shortened to 나리) is a good example of the way a vowel-only syllable tends to blend into the previous syllable, elongating it, but not actually being pronounced as a distinct syllable. You can see something similar with the last three jamo (letter blocks/syllables) in 뱀파이어 (Vampire, as in Vampire Prosecutor), so you get bem-pah-ee-aw, which is pronounced bem-pai-yaw. Not quite the two syllables of the English word, but close.
Also note that the brawl between the police units is caused by the Left Police officer using banmal (반말) when he ought to have used jondaemal (존댓말). They don’t translate that in the subtitles, but you can hear the Right Police Commander yelling at him for using banmal, right before they fight.
The Korean title, 조선 (“Cho-sawn”) 여형사 (“yaw-hyong-sa,” detective) 다모 (“dah-mo,” tea servant), is also translated as Female Detective Damo, The Undercover Lady Detective, The Detective in Chosun, or The Legendary Police Woman.
See all Damo and Lee Seo Jin reviews