South Korean writer director Kim Jee-woon has been in the industry over 20 years, dwelling on darker themes and appeasing his own personal passions. He is best known for 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters and 2010’s I Saw the Devil, which tackle two divergent ends of the human experience. With Apple’s original series Dr. Brain, this revered veteran weaves together plot points which hark back to those past glories, offering up a new approach to traditional genre tropes.
Headlined by Parasite mainstay Lee Sun-Kyun as Doctor Sewon Koh, this six-part drama charts his mental descent whilst addressing moral and ethical conundrums along the way. By employing flashbacks to establish motivation alongside dazzling camerawork, Kim Jee-woon delicately unpacks this dramatic enigma with care and consideration. Jumping back and forth between formative memories and present-day exchanges, he allows audiences an intrinsic understanding of his central protagonist.
The performance from Lee requires both physical and emotional restraint, as narratives shift and perspectives turn on a dime. When the full extent of his situation becomes apparent and external forces apply pressure, this tragic tale of familial loss only adds further pathos to his on-screen presence. As realities blur, past and present moments merge and horrific hallucinations take precedence, tensions inevitably ramp up. A consequence which neither helps nor hinders the show either way, but instead creates an intangible distance between an audience and what they want to invest in.
Yet stylistically Dr. Brain feels cutting edge in its use of visuals, that perhaps reflects its webtoon origins. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the aesthetic rather than emotional means that loss, grief and threat as notions in this story rarely hit home. A feeling which is exacerbated by Kim’s choice to dive deeper down the rabbit hole at that point, rather than offering clarity to an eager audience.
As Sewon’s grief and remorse begin to manifest themselves in increasingly disturbing ways, this show begins drifting into the realm of Korean horror. Blood-soaked spouses, childish laughter and intentionally off kilter musical accompaniment only add to its unreality. Kim clearly feels at home dropping cinematic references into the fabric of his tale, as elements of Strange Days, Total Recall and The Sixth Sense all come into play. If anything, Dr. Brain needs to be praised for its audacious incorporation of these seminal classics, even though things feel overcrowded and a touch messy at times. However, beyond the conventional movie motifs carefully deployed within this story, Doctor Brain also benefits enormously from the presence of classical literature.
A desire to reanimate the inanimate and play God has been a literary theme since people first put pen to paper. Possibly the greatest example of the genre came about in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — a tale of megalomania which pits one man against the establishment, and in so doing, tells a tale defined by universal truths. Of all the influences which color this uniquely stylishly murder mystery slash science fiction crossover, Frankenstein comes through most strongly.
Sewon is a detached intellectual genius, devoid of social skills and defined by routine. His presence on the autistic spectrum is laid out early on, then becomes part of his character, rather a definitive reason for what follows. This necessity for access to fresh cadavers ties back into the classical text, while its South Korean contemporary also leans heavily into the loss of a spouse; again linking back to Frankenstein.
However, from a more contemporary perspective, it’s also possible to make connections to David Fincher’s Fight Club, if not in terms of story, then certainly through characterization. Although it doesn’t deal with the unconscious mind directly or individual memories, there are some visual connections to be made.
Both central protagonists have lost something fundamental which has altered their perspective on the outside world. Both directors also choose to manifest these psychological changes through fleeting images or subliminal cuts. However, where Fincher’s vision on this occasion is backed up by hard-hitting side swipes at consumer culture, Dr. Brain is too self-involved and lacks clarity.
It does go some way to fulfilling it prophecy in terms of jump scares, eerie underground car parks and ominous shadows, but is let down by a plot which requires Cliffs Notes. On top of that, a lack of consistent pacing will find many heading out for snacks before things really get going — something which is guaranteed to happen more than once over the course its six-hour running time.
This psychological thriller from South Korean veteran Kim Jee-woon is an overstuffed Apple original, more concerned with being clever than making a connection.