Thursday, November 04, 2021

Kim Jee-woon’s Dr. Brain, on Apple TV+

Brain scientists are often a little socially awkward, at least in movies and TV, but Dr. Koh Se-won takes the brain biscuit. He can literally get inside peoples’ heads, but it is almost impossible for him to open up to anyone, not even his wife and son. However, when they are taken from him prematurely, he just so happens to have technology to help him get answers, from other people’s memories. Of course, as with any great innovation, his revolutionary process comes with unforeseen side effects and complications in Kim Jee-woon’s six-episode Dr. Brain, adapted from Hong Jac-ga’s web-comic, which is now streaming on Apple TV+.

The exact circumstances are not spelled out, but Koh was born with a different brain structure that contributed to his intellectual brilliance, but also put him somewhere on the spectrum. Despite his impassive emotional reserve, he marries Jae-yi and they have a son, Do-yoon, who is very much like his father. Unfortunately, Do-yoon was killed in a freak accident, from which Jae-yi never recovered—except maybe he didn’t. Suddenly, Dr. Koh has reason to wonder.

Using his handing-dandy brain-synching apparatus, Koh is able to transfer memories from recently dead brains into his own. It is a process he is still refining. It turns out he also inadvertently synchs many of their skills and instincts. However, the process is dangerously erratic when attempted with a living brain. Instead of true memories, Dr. Koh is flooded with images from their subconscious. Regardless, each time he synchs, his brain absorbs another huge download. If it were not for his atypical brain structure, he probably could not handle it.

Dr. Brain
follows in the tradition of psyche-plumbing thrillers like Spellbound, Battle of Memories, and Dreamscape, where the subconscious is an equally important setting for the drama to play out as the offices and homes of its primary characters. It definitely plays to the strength of genre auteur Kim (Age of Shadows and I Saw the Devil), who brings a bit of a horror sensibility to first installment (a la Flatliners), before setting into psychological-thriller bag for the following five episodes. There are some devilishly inventive developments, including a brain-synch with a cat. Yet, Kim always keeps the conspiracy-driven tension and suspense cranked up high.

Lee Sun-kyun (the “have” father in
Parasite) does the nearly impossible. He scrupulously maintains Koh’s emotional frozen nature, while making us care about his plight. Lee also believably portrays the changes that come over the scientist as he continues to transfer other people’s memories and feelings into his brain-basket. It is a real challenge, but he totally pulls it off.

Yet, the fan favorite of
Dr. Brain is sure to be Park Hee-soon, who is wonderfully sly and grizzled as private investigator Lee Kang-mu. He and Koh come to collaborate together in an inventive way that would be spoilery to reveal. Regardless, whenever he comes on-screen, everything kicks up several notches. Seo Ji-hye does not get much backstory or character development as the cop investigating the bodies that start to pile up, but she is appealingly no-nonsense and quite credible in her action scenes.

Lee Yoo-young has it even worse as Koh’s long-suffering wife, who is either hysterical or a basket case in nearly all her scenes. However, Lee Jae-won really brings unexpected pathos to the series as Dr. Hong Nam-il, Koh’s colleague who becomes bound-up with his chaotic investigation in mysterious ways.

Even without
The Squid Game, a multi-episode series directed by Kim Jee-won would be big news. Presumably, it is even easier to pitch now. Frankly, Dr. Brain is considerably more original and intriguing, because there were already ample film and streaming precedents involving desperate people playing a game-to-the-death, whereas this is its own thing. In this case, the science fiction elements are grounded enough to suspend disbelief and trippy enough to give reality a good stretch. Highly recommended for fans of speculative and psychological thrillers, episode one of Dr. Brain is now streaming on Apple TV+, which subsequent episodes releasing weekly.