The South Korean sci-fi thriller “Dr. Brain”, whose first season ends Friday on Apple TV +, must come as a shock to anyone who expects another top Korean series (or K-drama) like the recent international hits “Kingdom” (zombie costume drama), “Squid Game” (dystopian science fiction) and “Hellbound” (supernatural religious drama).
In contrast, âDr. Brainâ often feels stylistically and emotionally overpowered thanks to its retired protagonist, a brain scientist named Sewon (Lee Sun-kyun) who has an overdeveloped tonsil and an underdeveloped hippocampus. has an exceptional memory, he is not very warm or ungrateful.
Based on a popular Korean web cartoon, “Dr. Brain” follows Sewon as he searches for his missing son, Doyoon (Jeong Si-on), using his own experimental “brain synchronization” device, which allows two human patients to share their memories.Viewers learn more about Sewon in each new episode as he syncs up with his friends and loved ones, and sees himself through their eyes.
For his debut K-drama, veteran genre filmmaker Kim Jee-woon (“Illang: The Wolf Brigade”, “I Saw the Devil”) scaled down the most fantastical elements of the cartoon – his “Dr. Brain” plays more like a psychological drama with sci-fi traps. In a recent video interview, Kim, who directed and wrote all six episodes with Kim Jin A and Koh YoungJae, discussed the emerging global popularity of the K-drama and its relationship to its title character. These are edited excerpts from that conversation, which was facilitated by translator Rebecca Lee.
It’s not very common to build a series around an emotionally distant character like Sewon, who is defined primarily by brief speech and expressionless body language. Why did you do it like this?
We added the part where he has an overdeveloped tonsil and an underdeveloped hippocampus. If you look at the original web cartoon, you will see that Hong Jac-ga, the author and artist of the original cartoon, primarily defined Sewon as a creative and exceptionally intelligent character.
I wanted to add more layers to Sewon’s personality; I figured he needed to be more socially isolated so that he could build more relationships as the story progressed. We’ve also added more supporting characters to our series than in the original cartoon.
Did you work with Lee Sun-kyun to get his muted performance to reflect Sewon‘s more sympathetic qualities?
Sun-kyun initially struggled to keep up with all of Sewon’s emotions, so before we started filming he and I talked about how we would make Sewon identifiable. We decided to make the character warmer in the eyes of viewers as the story progresses. So, as Sewon goes through a series of brain synchronizations, he shows us emotions that aren’t evident when we first meet him.
You use a subjective camera to simulate what Sewon sees when he synchronizes with other patients. These viewpoint sequences can be confusing, but mostly they seem realistic. How did you determine what viewers should see in these scenes?
I tried to keep the plot grounded in reality because we didn’t turn Sewon into a superhero. So I started with the assumption that this kind of technology is possible, and I started to build from there. For example: when Sewon synchronizes with someone, he subconsciously picks up their habits, emotions and thoughts. So I tried to visualize what he might be feeling in his everyday life. What are his nightmares like? What does it look like if he’s on strong medication or recreational drugs?
My team and I researched successful experiments on brain synchronization, brain connection, and brainwave transmission around the world, and consulted with prominent brain engineers in Korea. Among the various experiments in neuroscience, I was impressed by a 2011 study conducted by professor of psychology and neuroscience Jack Gallant at UC Berkeley. Gallant showed a short video clip to human test subjects, and then was able to successfully reconstruct images from that video by observing brain activity in their visual cortices. These experiments suggest that in the decades to come, dreams could be scanned and visualized by interpreting the neurological activity of the visual cortex while we sleep.
Were there aspects of “Dr. Brain “inspired by other series or films?
It wasn’t an inspiration for âDr. Brainâ, but I’m generally inspired by the tempo and richness of detail in âZodiacâ. As for âDr. Brainâ and the concept of showing what people’s memories and dreams are like, I’m a huge fan of âEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindâ and Satoshi Kon’s animated film âPaprikaâ.
What do you think of the recent global popularity of K-dramas? Are there certain genres or styles of them that you prefer or dislike?
Korean music, movies, and music began to reach global audiences after 1997, when Kim Dae-jung was elected president. His administration implemented policies that fostered more competitive domestic arts programs and industries, leading to the development of a global fan base for Korean content. The generation that now creates Korean content grew up watching movies and listening to music that were made in the mid to late 90s, so they know how to woo a global audience.
Some actors of “Dr Brain ” said remind them of Sewon. Lee Sun-kyun Said You Both Are “a little blunt, but very deep. Identify yourself with the character?
Yes, there are several similarities. I am not a person who expresses emotions quickly. I don’t really talk much about myself and am not very active in pursuing personal or social relationships. These social inhibitions are partly the expression of my personality, but also of the way I see my role as a director. Korean cinema can be quite chaotic, and a director’s actions, demeanor or mood can have a big influence on the production team and staff. A director can’t be shaken by every little thing that happens during filming, so he needs to make sure his entire team can count on him.
What makes Korean cinema particularly chaotic? How is it different from something like “The last Stand,” American action movie you directed with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
In Korea, you and your team often end the workday by going out for a few drinks. Maybe more than a few drinks – quite a few drinks. While you drink together, you try to find solutions to the problems that arose during the working day that you could not face at the time. It’s a very common phenomenon in Korean cinema, and I think it’s unique to Korea as well. I’m not a big fan of doing this stuff. [Laughs.]
Compared to Hollywood productions, Korean films and dramas are built around a unique family hierarchy, although this is changing completely. Five years ago, the Korean entertainment industry passed new labor laws that shorten working hours and provide better social protection and health insurance. The pandemic’s need for social distancing has also brought immense changes to Korean cinema and television, and although some old work practices remain, a new culture is emerging.