I can see why actress Ha Ji Won (Secret Garden) considers this splendid role in Damo (2003) to be her personal favorite of her entire career to date: her character Chae Ok the Policewoman is strong yet feminine, smart, and also a fighter and idealist, desiring to have her life focused on personal honor. She is caught between the obsessions of two very different but fabulously handsome and very masculine men ... no flower boys here or spoiled rich chaebols (moguls) ... but real tough men who can fight it out for her devotion and love. Fabulous cinematography, martial arts, special effects, passionate acting, and rousing music that's so beautiful it will cause your heart to melt, all make Damo gripping to watch from beginning to end. What people miss by avoiding the older classic shows like this one, with style and heart! Their loss! I loved this so much I bought the official DVD release on Amazon. The DVD set has nice and sharp HD visuals, great subtitles, and best of all: no station bugs!
The Story: In the beginning of our story Chae Ok (Ha Ji Won) a policewoman (or damo), whose noble family was overthrown, killed or scattered in her childhood, disguises herself as a man to participate in a special secret police assignment: a prominent and beautiful young noble woman has died under mysterious circumstances, and while at first the police consider it a natural death Chae Ok checks the woman out during an autopsy and discovers she had been poisoned and strangled. They bring out a lineup of servants who might have done the dirty deed due to sexual obsession and by examining the men on the line Chae Ok can immediately identify the murderer by his shifty behavior and by a physical trait that he has but all the other men lack.
All this excellent detective work impresses her boss (who secretly loves her), Commander Hwangbo (played by handsome Seo Jin Lee (Lovers). He has watched her grow up since she came under his care as a young girl and has trained her for years to be an expert at martial arts and police work. Because of social standing he attempts to treat her as a sister but at private moments their deeper feelings for each other are obvious, like in a beautiful garden scene when he attends to her sword wound. "Are you in pain? I am too," he says to her, feeling everything she is feeling.
The Rare Full OST from the OOP CD for Damo
Despite the often grueling work, Chae Ok remains a very feminine, soft-spoken woman and only during practice (and later real) fights does her physical strength shine through.
Also working with her in the police force is older police captain Jo Wan Baek (character actor Han Wie Lee from Beethoven Virus and Spring Waltz) who is always good for some comic relief during many intense scenes (there's just something about this actor that makes you want to giggle, especially when he's trying to play straight scenes and starts to stutter). Chae Ok, Hwangbo, Wan Baek and the other police, work on several cases over the course of the series, for instance, investigating the theft of expensive rare ginseng, the rise of thieving marauders and plots against the King, a counterfeiting ring, and other murder cases.
While on her cases she finds herself drawn to the mysterious Jang Sung Baek (intense actor Min Joon Kim from In Soon Is Pretty) whom everyone suspects is the leader of a counterfeit ring, but he is instead the leader of a guerrilla army out to overthrow the King himself. This puts her in direct conflict with his secret mission, yet they remain attracted to one another at every encounter and the attraction grows and deepens constantly. Soon enough Sung Baek discovers that Chae Ok is in fact the sister he had lost in childhood when their family was destroyed; they had played and fought together as children and had loved one another, but he keeps this information secret from her until near the very end of the story, when it is revealed with dramatic flair and unbelievable passion.
It is tragic when siblings are separated while they are young. Meeting again and falling in love as adult siblings is also tragic, especially when one's brother is a subversive agent and the sister is a policewoman, and to throw another log on the fire Chae Ok still feels a sense of obligation to Hwangbo her commander, and continues to love him too on a different level than she loves Sung Baek. It tears the audience in two because they are both repelled yet attracted to the feelings all three of them experience when dealing with one another.
At one point Sung Baek risks his life to save hers, and at another point he seems prepared to take her life too! On her part, Chae Ok prepares a strategy with rebels to rescue Sung Baek from royal soldiers, which she really shouldn't have done to a King's enemy, and at another point she pulls out her sword to kill him! Then Hwangbo gets married to a woman he doesn't love, while still maintaining secret sexual desires for Chae Ok. Talk about your unbridled passions! No wonder why this show was such a phenomena in Korea! haha.
Ah, the vexation -- and yet the intriguing qualities of such a plot! Even when Hwangbo discovers they are siblings he doesn't say anything out of some weird, perverse jealousy! What an unbelievable love triangle in this enthralling tale, yet despite all their flaws I loved all three characters! I feel this must have been a common reality of the times, the displacement and disruption of families midst turbulent political and economic climates, and the constant wars and plots against royalty and the noble class. The writers set this brother-sister attraction up originally when Sung Baek first saw Chae Ok on a dock and was instantly drawn to her due to her sweetness, humor, and kindness, but he didn't know at that point who she was. However it is a different kind of intense love that draws them together as time goes on, only they do not understand the full power of it until the end. Extremely haunting, in fact, almost rather kinky, to use a modern phrase!
In the gripping series' finale, the crowning of a new prince is imminent and a final assault on the palace threatens to change the balance of power. Everyone has a stake in the outcome.
Ha Ji Won gives the most amazing performance of her career in Damo,
her own personal favorite work she has done
The very last scene in this drama is THE MOST IMPRESSIVE I have ever seen in ANY Korean drama, and is simply not to be missed if you are a die-hard K-drama fan like I am. The camera work filming it is unique and spellbinding and I know even classic American film cinematographers would have been impressed and tried to emulate it. I will give no spoilers regarding the shocking ending, you'll just have to experience it for yourself!
Buy Damo on Amazon on DVD