3 out of 5
Directed by: Kim Jee-woon
With director Kim Jee-woon at the helm of 6-episode TV series Dr. Brain, you know you will be guaranteed, at the very least, some wonderfully lush scenes. This has been true across the director’s entire oeuvre, whether veering more towards action or comedy or horror or drama – shot composition can be an entrancing thing. Which is separate from overall quality of a project, of course, as Jee-woon’s more mundane last couple flicks may suggest, but it’s also enough of an appeal to merit checking something out bearing the director’s name. Additionally, the expanded scope offered by a TV series has seen interesting expression over the past several years under the hands of many notable film-only types, plus we have unique source material – a webtoon, by Hongjacga – possibly nudging Kim out of the more reality-bound doldrums of those recent movies and back toward some of the horror / fantasy that produced works like I Saw the Devil or A Tale of Two Sisters, so… Lots of potential.
The baseline expectation holds true: Dr. Brain looks fantastic the whole way through, and Jee-woon’s craft (assisted by cinematographer Kim Cheon-seok, providing a gorgeously synchronized palette and grainy look for the series; and editors Yang Jin-mo and Han Mi-yeon keeping each episode flowing) also provides some expertly stitched together sequences that cross-cut between different points of view. Ironically, though, for something that has a pretty wild premise – plug your brain into another’s, absorb their memories – it feels oddly restrained throughout. On the flip side of that, the overall arc of the plot is great. Mind-swapping isn’t necessarily original sci-fi, nor is the eventual “what’s really going on” that’s revealed, but Jee-woon and cowriters Kim Jin A and Koh YoungJae, in adapting the webtoon, really nail a fun clue-hunting angle into things that provides for an exciting buildup to that reveal. But when you can do wild things like absorb the memories of a cat and gain cat-like powers, it feels kinda dumb to only use that weirdness for, like, one scene, and otherwise use the “powers” in ways that maybe / kinda could’ve been supplanted by some dedicated investigatin’.
Tacking on to that, the police – looking into crimes for which they initially suspect brain-researcher Sewon Koh (Lee Sun-kyun) – make a big bruhaha about not trusting his claims about downloading memories from cadavers and whatnot, as they should, but when he presents what really amounts to circumstantial “proof” about his abilities, they suddenly flip-flop to whole-hearted supporters. It’s only a 6-episode series, so some shorthand is understandable, but the show pushes so hard on them not trusting Koh initially that the change feels too easy.
These flaws taken into account, Dr. Brain is nonetheless very binge-y, finding a pleasing balance between all of those aforementioned genres – comedy, drama, action – with Park Hee-soon as a private investigator who adds a fun odd couple angle to the mix, and Seo Ji-hye’s copper Jiun Choi a great reflection of the humorless Koh.