Damo


Reviewed by: hamcycle

December 22, 2004

Rating: four-point-five

The word "damo" means "tea pourer," a lowly job assigned to servant class women. In the case of a damo working at a police bureau, the position also entailed police work that men were not socially permitted to conduct, such as investigating women's quarters or conducting autopsies on female corpses.

Some History

1392 Choson dynasty begins, a period defined by its Confucian social and political structure
1446 Hangul invented
1592-1598 Japan attempts invasion of China via Korea; fails
1636 Manchu attempts invasion of Korea; fails
1644 Ming dynasty ends; Manchu dynasty begins; Chinese cultural influence temporarily cut off
1681–1763 "practical learning" philosophical movement begins among Chosôn elite; concerns about pragmatic solutions to Korean social conditions arise; factionalism and elitism questioned

Drama In Context

1679 - the respectable Director of the Government Library, Jang Il-Soon, is accused of treason against the Korean emperor, presumably for introducing new ideas that question the caste system and therefore threaten the emperor's sovereignty; Jang Il-Soon obliges the king's order to commit suicide, but arranges his teenager son, Jang Jae-Mo, and seven year old daughter, Jang Jae-Hui, to escape into the mountains instead of being bound to servant class positions, the lowest caste in the system. Although promising to protect his sister Jae-Hui, Jae-Mo barely manages to escape with his own life.

1679 - Jang Jae-Hui is assigned to be a servant girl for Hwangbo Yoon; as he himself has experienced class discrimination for being a half-noble, the son of a government official's concubine, Yoon treats Jae-Hui like his younger sister; Jae-Hui, however, never forgets their formal relationship; knowing that a half-noble will not be able to take the military service exam, his father arranges Yoon to become a pupil of a renown monk named Seung-Goon-Do-Chong-Seob.

1680's - Yoon passes his daily lessons along to Jae-Hui, and together they both grow to become exceptional warriors; his father requests Police Chief Joh Seh-Ook to overlook his son's status and have Yoon be assigned to his Left Police Bureau, citing his remarkable abilities. Yoon, in turn, requests his father to have Jae-Hui accompany him as the Police Bureau's damo; Yoon's father grants him his request on the condition that Yoon and Jae-Hui do not hold a personal relationship; he reveals Jae-Hui's history as the daughter of a nobleman accused of treason, and warns that, as a result, she would be a hindrance to Yoon's future as well as a source of shame to his father; Yoon abides by his father’s will, not to protect his own career, which he will forsake time and time again, but to honor his father’s reputation; Jang Jae-Hui's name is changed to Jang Chae-Ohk to help hide her history.

1692 – the series begins, with the Left Police Bureau investigating a counterfeiting scheme that is later discovered to be financing a greater conspiracy.

Analysis

This drama holds important social commentary on Korean society, as to how the class system still carries influence in the present day. One simple example can be observed in the playground: children of white collar positions such as lawyers and executives usually make it a point to not befriend children of merchants or restaurant owners. Children of divorced parents are often ostracized (although this is less seen as divorces are becoming more common). Even in the 21st century, politics, employment, and marriage unions face prejudice, in varying degrees, along provincial origins dating back to the Koryo Dynasty. Therefore, one can only imagine how rigidly this system was observed back in the day.

Without knowing the cultural context, a Western observer will likely to be confused as to why Chae-Ohk behaves the way she does. A competent Western heroine is usually only outwardly obedient to the social restrictions of her time, whereas Chae-Ohk genuinely believes herself when she says, “Sir, how could a servant girl be compared with a person? A servant girl is no different from a tree.” This frame of mind is clearly demonstrated as Chae-Ohk chose to permit to have her right arm severed than to jeopardize Yoon’s career at the police bureau. It is also demonstrated as she practically commits suicide by approaching the emperor to gain his audience in order to save Yoon from execution. It is to this degree that she observes Yoon’s father’s request to not have a personal relationship with Yoon, in spite of her deep feelings for him. What makes Chae-Ok such a compelling and tragic character is that her own virtue and strength of character will prevent her from seeking her own happiness.

Chae-Ohk’s only moments of weakness are those involving Boss Jang Sung-Baek, the leader of the mountain guerrilla forces working to overthrow the caste system. He is regarded as the “heart and will of the people,” and only he was able to shake Chae-Ohk’s indoctrinated beliefs of her status and that freedom in the mountains could have been a possibility for her. His love for the people is demonstrated for the care he gives to the most marginalized of all: lepers. His mother had contracted leprosy after her husband's death, which caused the villagers to chase her out with stones, leaving her to starve and die from the wounds they inflicted on her. The writer probably intended Jang Sung-Baek to represent the countless real life revolutionaries that were to rise and fall fighting against, not only their own government, but the Japanese colonial rulers who were to mark the end of the Choson dynasty. The most striking moment the drama offers, for me at least, is the conflicting moment when Sung-Baek had to decide whether to kill the woman presumed to be the damo, who had cost the lives of a number of his rebel brothers. Although he ascertains the true identity of the woman prior to the fatal blow, it seemed clear to me that a revolutionary like Sung-Baek was willing to forsake even those dearest to him for the greater good of the people. This is yet again another person forsaking his own happiness.

I remember in particular the flashback of the moment when the Library Director Jang Il-Soon writes the Chinese characters 'Bal Mook' and asks his children what they mean. It literally translates to 'grind an ink block', but I was confused as to how its deeper meaning was that "people are all the same". After some thought, I decided it meant that as long as the person in question makes a sincere effort, the result will be the same, regardless of who was grinding the block. The idea that equality among people existed irrespective to wealth, lineage, age, and gender was indeed treacherous to Confucian values. Then I thought about how deep an impression this moment left on the minds of his children and how they directed their lives as a result of it.

Overall, Damo was a brave and commendable production considering it did so many unconventional things. It used romance and tragedy to emotionally involve its audience, but in the bigger picture, it is just a tool to investigate the greater themes of egalitarianism, the non-pursuit of happiness, and the ambiguities of human emotion. I know many people, including myself, dismissed the series after the first episode, not so much because the old Korean was difficult to understand, but because of the campy action sequences that made it difficult to have a respectable regard for the series. It is important to note that one of the elite guard captains overtly spoke modern day Korean, which was noticed by everyone (imagine reading “What’s going on around here?” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”). However, after giving Damo another chance, I was greatly rewarded for my patience with a satisfying story. Also, it is important to note that it isn't a stuffy period piece that observes all the cultural elements, but is more like a historical fantasy piece, like "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". Filled with fast paced elements, like fighting, intrigue, snappy dialogue, and contemporary music, it keeps even the stupidest audience members entertained throughout (like me!).

There were many commendable actors, as even the supporting and peripheral actors are of some renown, but being a guy, the only actor I would like reflect on is Ha Jin Won, who played Chae-Ohk. She approached the role with a simplicity that I haven’t seen in an actor in a long time. It didn’t seem she was trying hard to prove her worth as an actress (at times it made me laugh), but rather she had a plain quality in the manner she expressed her emotions through her eyes and lips that underscored the modesty that the character required. This however punctuated her emotional scenes, especially when she cries effusively at her parent's burial site. Seeing her in pictures with makeup and modern clothing make her appear strange.


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