The South Korean science-fiction thriller “Dr. Brain,” whose first season wraps up Friday on Apple TV+, must seem jarring to anyone expecting another high-concept Korean series (or K-drama) like the recent international hits “Kingdom” (zombie costume drama), “Squid Game” (dystopian science fiction) and “Hellbound” (supernatural religious-cult drama).
By contrast, “Dr. Brain” often feels stylistically and emotionally subdued thanks to its withdrawn protagonist, a brain scientist named Sewon (Lee Sun-kyun) who has an overdeveloped amygdala and an underdeveloped hippocampus. So while Sewon has an exceptional memory, he’s not very warm or ingratiating.
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-synchronizing” device, which allows two human patients to share their memories. Viewers learn more about Sewon in each new episode as he brain-syncs with his friends and loved ones, and sees himself through their eyes.
For his first K-drama, the veteran genre filmmaker Kim Jee-woon (“Illang: The Wolf Brigade,” “I Saw the Devil”) tamped down the cartoon’s more fantastical elements — his “Dr. Brain” plays more like a psychological drama with science-fiction trappings. In a recent video interview, Kim, who directed all six episodes and wrote them with Kim Jin A and Koh YoungJae, discussed the emerging global popularity of K-drama and how he relates with his main character. These are edited excerpts from that conversation, which was facilitated by the translator Rebecca Lee.
It’s not terribly common to build a series around an emotionally distant character like Sewon, who is defined primarily by curt speech and inexpressive body language. Why did you make him that way?
We added the part where he has an overdeveloped amygdala and underdeveloped hippocampus. If you look at the original web cartoon, you’ll see that Hong Jac-ga, the original cartoon’s writer and artist, primarily defined Sewon as a creative, outstandingly intelligent character.
I wanted to add more layers to Sewon’s personality; I imagined that he needed to be more socially isolated so that he could establish more relationships as the story progressed. We also added more supporting characters to our series than were in the original cartoon.
Did you work with Lee Sun-kyun to make his muted performance reflect Sewon’s more sympathetic qualities?
Sun-kyun initially struggled to follow all of Sewon’s emotions, so before we started shooting, he and I talked about how we’d make Sewon relatable. We decided to make the character seem warmer to viewers as the story progresses, so as Sewon goes through a series of brain-syncs, he shows us emotions that are not evident when we first meet him.
You use subjective camerawork to simulate what Sewon sees when he brain-syncs with other patients. These point-of-view sequences can be disorienting, but they mostly look 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 type of technology is possible, and started building from there. For example: When Sewon brain-syncs with someone, he unconsciously picks up their habits, emotions and thoughts, so I tried to visualize how he might feel in his everyday life. What do his nightmares feel like? What does it look like if he’s on strong medication or recreational drugs?
My team and I looked up successful experiments on brain synchronization, brain connection and brain wave transmission from around the world, and consulted with prominent brain engineers in Korea. Among the various neuroscience experiments, I was impressed by a 2011 study conducted by the psychology and neuroscience professor 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 the brain activity in their visual cortexes. Those experiments suggest that in the coming decades, dreams could be scanned and visualized by interpreting neurological activity from the visual cortex while we sleep.
Were any aspects of “Dr. Brain” inspired by other series or films?
This wasn’t an inspiration for “Dr. Brain,” but I’m generally inspired by the tempo and the wealth of detail in “Zodiac.” As for “Dr. Brain” and the concept of showing what people’s memories and dreams look like, I’m a big fan of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and Satoshi Kon’s anime movie “Paprika.”
What do you think about 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 started to reach a global audience after 1997, when Kim Dae-jung was elected president. His administration implemented policies that nurtured more competitive domestic arts programs and industries, which led to the development of a global fan base for Korean content. The generation that’s now creating Korean content grew up watching films and listening to music that were made during the middle to late 1990s, so they know how to appeal to global audiences.
Some cast members from “Dr. Brain” have said that you remind them of Sewon. Lee Sun-kyun said that you are both “a little blunt, but very deep.” Do you identify with the character?
Yeah, there are several similarities. I’m not a person who’s quick to express emotions. I don’t really talk about myself a lot, and I’m not very active in pursuing personal or social relationships. These social inhibitions are partly an expression of my personality, but also how I see my role as a director. Korean filmmaking can be quite chaotic, and a director’s actions, behavior or mood can have a big influence on the crew and the production’s staff. A director cannot be shaken by every little thing that happens during the shoot, so he has to make sure that his entire team can rely on him.
What makes Korean filmmaking uniquely chaotic? How is it different from something like “The Last Stand,” the American action movie you made with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
In Korea, you and your team will often end the working day by going out for a couple of drinks. Maybe more than a couple of drinks — quite a few drinks. As you drink together, you try to find solutions to problems that happened during the workday that you weren’t able to confront at the time. That’s a very common occurrence in Korean filmmaking, and I think it’s unique to Korea as well. I’m not a big fan of doing that stuff. [Laughs.]
Compared to Hollywood productions, Korean movies and dramas are built around a unique family-like hierarchy, though that’s now changing completely. Five years ago, the Korean entertainment industry passed new labor laws that shorten working hours and provide better welfare and health insurance. The pandemic’s need for social distancing has also brought immense changes to Korean film and TV, and while some old labor practices remain, a new culture is emerging.