There’s something both admirable and endearing about a TV show that establishes a bonkers premise and then exploits it to the fullest, as is the case with the delirious Dr. Brain. Starring Parasite’s Lee Sun-kyun and directed and co-written by I Saw the Devil’s Kim Jee-woon, Apple TV+’s first Korean language series (Nov. 4) is a six-part sci-fi effort that begins in lunatic terrain and gets progressively wilder and weirder with each installment. Restraint is not its forte, but fantastical psychotronic horror-mystery-family-drama most certainly is, making it—on the heels of Netflix’s Squid Game—a foreign import that’s tailor-made for viewers with a fondness for unhinged genre insanity.
Based on Hongjacga’s popular Korean webtoon of the same name, Dr. Brain concerns Sewon, who as a child exhibits phenomenal intelligence but also an autism-exacerbated lack of emotion and social skills. Sewon is orphaned when his mother is killed right before his eyes in a horrific traffic accident, at which point the series jumps decades into the future to find the now-grown Sewon (Lee Sun-kyun) working as a scientist consumed with a groundbreaking concept: brain synchronization via quantum entanglements, which will allow him to probe “the abyss of human consciousness” and facilitate non-verbal communication with the comatose and seriously ill. As someone at Sewon’s conference presentation opines, this amounts to hacking the brain, and it’s not long before Sewon triumphantly pulls off his techno-trick with lab rats—albeit only after one of the animals is dead, which creates more than a minor procedural complication for its subsequent application with people.
As nighttime lightning crashes around his research center, Sewon quickly embraces his inner Dr. Frankenstein, convincing his sympathetic colleague Dr. Hong (Lee Jae-won) to help him brain-sync with a corpse that Hong chooses, apparently at random. This experiment doesn’t go according to plan, and leaves Sewon with lots of severe brain pain and attendant visions of his childhood as well as, possibly, someone else’s memories. He’s then visited by Kangmu Lee (Park Hee-soon), a private investigator who’s been hired by a man named Junki to look into the fate of Sewon’s wife Jaeyi (Lee Yoo-young). Jaeyi tried to take her own life after their son Doyoon perished in a tragic gas explosion, this despite Jaeyi clinging to the belief that Doyoon was still alive, much to cold-fish Sewon’s chagrin. Through his encounter with Kangmu, Sewon also learns that Junki and Jaeyi were having an affair, because everything and everyone in this series is tangled up in convoluted knots.
Brain-syncing is destined to become the vehicle for the remote Sewon to form connections with his loved ones, but such thematic concerns are secondary to Kim’s wackadoo plotting. No sooner has Sewon learned of his wife’s extramarital relationship than Lieutenant Choi (Seo Ji-hye) appears on his doorstep to inform him that Junki has been murdered. Sewon responds to this news by promptly sneaking into the morgue to brain-sync with his wife’s dead lover in order to figure out what’s going on. This just leads to further hallucinations involving Junki’s daughter Heejin, as well as troubling new feelings, because brain-syncing doesn’t just transfer thoughts but also quirks, habits, and emotions. Thus Sewon starts to become, mentally and temperamentally, something like a hybrid being. And that’s before he discovers that there’s an actual sentient ghost in his figurative machine—and, shortly thereafter, he chooses to brain-sync with a non-human specimen, granting him animal superpowers that cause his eyes to glow when activated.
This is even crazier than it sounds. Nonetheless, aside from some early narrative clunkiness regarding Jaeyi and Doyoon’s tragic fates—which are somewhat awkwardly introduced for reasons that become clearer later on—director Kim stages his story with enough methodical precision to keep things moving along a lucid track. That’s a not-inconsiderable feat considering the path Dr. Brain eventually traverses once Sewon, bolstered by his disorienting brain-sync experiences, comes to suspect that maybe Doyoon isn’t dead after all, and embarks on an investigation that exposes a much larger conspiracy related to his past. After yet another nutty twist, Kangmu literally comments on the raft of coincidences that have landed Sewon in his given predicament, and the series spends the bulk of its ensuing runtime slowly proving that there’s a method to its madness.
“You’re out of your mind,” Sewon tells his evil adversary in Dr. Brain’s penultimate episode, and the fact that director Kim plays the line straight—even though the person in question is trying to be literally out of his mind—is emblematic of his serious-minded treatment of this material. While the proceedings’ potential for campiness is almost limitless, winks to the audience are altogether absent, which helps heighten the amusement of watching Sewon assume various POVs, navigate scary dreamscapes (in particular, a red room with a liquid floor), and handle each new obstacle with stern, no-nonsense brusqueness. To that end, Lee’s lead performance as Sewon is similarly on the level, just melodramatic enough to stay in tune with the kinetic action, but not so goofy that it renders the enterprise a joke.
Like Sewon’s crowded noggin, Dr. Brain is a jumble of influences, from Frankenstein and Re-Animator to Inception (to name just a few). Director Kim, however, amalgamates with aplomb, creating something that feels fresh even though the traces of its predecessors are easy to identify. Moreover, he finds a way to continually up the ante with bombshells that reconfigure the very nature of what’s come before, culminating with a revelation about his villain’s evil scheme that’s at once hilariously outlandish and perfectly apt. Kim has no interest in half-measures, and the series’ go-for-broke energy ultimately trumps any individual storytelling surprise, creating a sense of silly and suspenseful live-wire tension. That said, Dr. Brain’s shockers are consistently entertaining, right up to a coda that suggests Sewon’s saga is just getting started—good news, considering the many additional creatures with which he’s yet to brain-sync.