If society resembles a puzzle, Dr. Se-won (Lee Sun-kyun), the lead of the first South Korean show made for Apple TV+ (itself the lead-in to the platform’s debut in the country), is the piece that won’t fit. At work, he’s warm to his research but frozen to his peers. When he was young he saw his mother perish, but there were no screams or tears.
In lieu of emotional expressions, Se-won gives either a “fast version” or a “slow version” of the incident to others, either the sharpest Occam’s Razor-ed summary or a perfect detail-by-detail recall. It is not an everyday ability; it is a cursed blessing. It is also, even with the specter of oversimplification in depicting people on the spectrum, a functional starting point for one heady and twisty roller-coaster of a series.
Dr. Brain is an adaptation of a webtoon of the same name from Hongjacga, with Season 1 comprising of six hourlong episodes all directed and co-written by Kim Jee-woon (with Kim Jin-A, Koh Young-jae, and Lee Mu-so). Don’t fret if the unfamiliarity of South Korea’s digital comic frontier sets in; you can still get the gist of the series by seeing it as a handshake between Inception and Flatliners—or a mukbang of many narrative bites in Kim’s past works, including resonating horror, sweet action, atypical procedurals, and heated dilemmas. Re-manifesting itself most vividly here is perhaps the latter, which Kim once used as the foundation of his segment The Heavenly Creature in the 2012 sci-fi omnibus Doomsday Book. But there is no enlightened robot or an argument to either venerate or deactivate here, only a scientist with new tech that connects people’s fleshy headquarters—called “brain sync”—and the case as to whether it’s beneficial or detrimental. This new version is less religious and not as serious, though it now has more room and more time to present its stimulating points. (The Heavenly Creature didn’t have these luxuries, so in attempting to ignite neurons it could be too verbose in delivery and hasty in pacing.)
Dr. Brain, in using “brain sync” to frame Se-won’s pursuit of the truth about the tragedy that affected his wife Jae-yi (Lee Yoo-young) and son Do-yoon (On Jeong-si), wows with variety. It isn’t always the sci-fi thriller as promoted—at one point it’s a nightmare, at another a domestic drama, and at another an ethical debate. The switches present light-bulb moments from Kim and company, chiefly director of photography Kim Cheon-seok, composer Mowg (a frequent collaborator), and editors Yang Jin-mo and Han Mi-yeon (both from Parasite), as they relish in the idea of causing the brain to doubt its deductions. Can what is seen be believed? Is there any truth in the sounds heard? Is that minor thing really as presented, or is it just pretending to be? These questions could make the series stagnant, but Kim’s signature propulsive visual storytelling and other choice spices bring big-screen sensibilities to small-screen material. Even when the action takes a pause, Kim and the editors will introduce something new into the scene, be it a novel angle or a saturation change, to further highlight what is being spoken and prevent interest from waning. When a scene’s mobility is limited, Kim sees it less as a restriction and more a chance to make choices that are modest but still creative, recalling his theatrical beginnings.
“Modest but still creative” is also a fitting descriptor for actor Lee’s approach to embodying Se-won. It’s certainly better than “inhuman,” which is what the character’s colleagues would say—except for the kind Dr. Na-mil (Lee Jae-won). Or “insane,” which is more what the eagle-eyed Lt. Ji-un (Seo Ji-hye) would think. Or perhaps a mix between the two, which is something the sardonic private investigator Kang-mu (Park Hee-soon) might express—but doesn’t bother to. Being arresting while understated has been the brand of the baritonic Paju and Parasite star, and to fuse it with Se-won as a character makes the scientist’s unsociability sympathetic, or at the least intriguing, rather than something that repels. From there, we find an enticing base for Se-won’s emotional evolution to happen, since after every brain-syncing episode he will acquire the memories and characteristics of others. Whether “more” does mean “better” for a person, a worker, and a father content with being so icy is Dr. Brain’s other big mystery to solve (besides the main “uncover-the-truth” one, of course). Rest assured, the answer will be just as wholesome and playful.
Set an appointment, if you haven’t already.
Dr. Brain Season 1 premieres Wednesday, November 3rd on Apple TV+ in the U.S. and November 4th in South Korea.
Nguyen Le is a freelance film writer currently based in Clutch City. Or H-Town. As in Houston, Texas. You can find his writings at JumpCut Online, Houston Chronicle, InSession Film, Awards Watch, The Young Folks and more. If you’re hungry for something else, he also has cooking photos and musings about his Vietnamese heritage on Facebook and/or Twitter. To him cà phê sua dá is the best drink ever, no debate.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.