Pros: Deeply touching; redefined television dramas.
"Damo: The Undercover Lady Detective of the Chosun Dynasty" is a 14-episode Korean television drama about tea servant (damo) Jang Chae-Ohk (played to perfection by the beautiful actress Ha Ji Won) that takes place in the seventeenth century feudal Korea. Against the backdrop of a race to uncover an overwhelming conspiracy, Damo is an epic tragedy centered around the interactions of three main characters: tea servant Jang Chae-Ohk; her lord, Hwangbo Yoon, the police commander said to have no equal; and rebel leader Jang Sung-Baek, who aims to tear down the feudal system to create a world of equality.
As much Damo is a police drama, it is a star-crossed tale of love and devotion; and a poignant exploration of the cultural blinders and limitations imposed by Korea's feudal society - on hope, ambition, career, education, love, marriage, having children, and more. Yet this exploration is not an invitation offered by the drama to criticize a different society. It is the product of the different viewpoints that a Westernized audience may bring to the story. The characters (well, at least the protagonists) themselves accept society for what it is, and go about living their lives.
Damo starts with a wuxia style fight scene reminiscent of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Although the opening sequence may feel imitative, Damo is very much its own story. The wuxia film style is expressive of the three main characters, and makes the main fight scenes powerful, poetic, and suspenseful. Unlike the cosmetically perfect characters of other dramas, Damo's characters are caked in blood, sweat, dirt, and tears. They are easy to empathize (and sympathize) with, because we have all experienced situations and losses in our own lives caused by circumstances beyond our control. They are easy to cheer for because they try their best, even in the worst of circumstances.
Like most other television dramas, Damo is not without fault. There are some story elements that make the conspiracy less plausible; and there are a few scenes that drag or are overdone. The latter issue detracts from the drama's overall experience in that Damo may be emotionally exhausting to watch. Whereas most other television dramas may induce a casual acknowledgement of sympathy for their characters, witnessing Chae-Ohk's cruel fate may dry out one's tear ducts.
Damo may be challenging to watch for general American audiences, as inherent cultural differences may require viewers to watch parts of the story several times to fully understand them. American audiences may initially find it difficult to distinguish between several male characters because they are similarly bearded and clothed; to keep track of the different character names; and to understand some decisions the characters make. But for those open to experiencing another culture, Damo is a captivating story that is well worth watching, and an incredible introduction to the "Korean wave" of television dramas that are very popular across East Asia and in ethnic Asian communities across the United States.