Apple TV+'s First Korean Series 'Dr. Brain' Is Mind-Melting Horror Hit

Adapted from the webtoon of the same name, 'Dr. Brain' could be the next international sensation post-'Squid Game.'

Lee Sun-kyun | Apple TV+
Lee Sun-kyun | Apple TV+

Over the years, pop culture has skewed our perception of how the human brain works. The myth that we only use 10% of our brain capacity at any one time inspired two separate blockbusters (and one short-lived spinoff series), while very real memory techniques are often depicted in ways that are beyond parody. Can anybody keep a straight face while watching the infamously cringe mind palace sequence from Sherlock? If you’re looking to AppleTV+’s first Korean language series, the aptly titled Dr. Brain, to offer a corrective to this, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Luckily, the six-part season, courtesy of director Kim Jee-Woon (the man behind cult favorites I Saw the Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters) is mind expanding in other ways, increasingly bending the conventions of a crime thriller to offer an imaginative new take on what would otherwise be a textbook murder mystery.

The first episode, which premiered on the streaming service earlier this week, establishes the rules of this world. Sewon (Lee Sun-kyun, best known for playing the rich patriarch Park Dong-ik in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite) has lived a life marked by tragedy; as a child, his mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident before his very eyes, while as an adult, his family died in unexplainable circumstances. It would make sense that he’d become emotionally detached—although he was always this way. His school teachers were concerned by his interest in breaking things, and while at the scene of his mother’s death, many were shaken by his emotionless display of a photographic memory, able to recite every detail about the scene of the crime but unable to feel anything.

Lee Sun-kyun in dr. brain
Lee Sun-kyun | Apple TV+

His interest in the human brain developed into later life, where he found his calling as a brain scientist. Sewon is in the process of creating a technique called brain synching, a technique that can connect two brains so that they can share memories—at one point, he understatedly describes this as a logical next step in human evolution, despite the ethical concerns. With the mystery of his son’s death and wife’s attempted suicide hanging over him (not least because a private investigator, played by Park Hee-soon, starts asking questions), it’s not long before he finds himself hooked up to bodies of those at the scene of the crime, aiming to see what they saw. But this complicates things; their memories all seamlessly blend in to his waking reality, and it very quickly becomes hard to differentiate between what is real and what is a distortion.

This opening episode is something of a masterclass in establishing the simple rules of this tech. Sewon is awkward and withdrawn towards his other colleagues at the laboratory. After his first brain synch, he starts developing sociable traits that dilute his prickly character, and finds his character changing in other ways. Memories and personality traits are distinctly interwoven in a manner that occasionally resembles a particularly deranged take on Inception, only here the tragic figures of the past find themselves combining to manifest in literal waking nightmares: In the first episode, this is via a multi-headed demon covered in goo.

It’s far more expository than any of the episodes that follow, which proves surprisingly effective, teasing out the details in a way that pushes the story forward rather than pausing to deliver lore-heavy monologues. Without giving too much of the later episodes away, this ensures Kim Jee-Woon, alongside co-writers Kim Jin A and Koh YoungJae, can use the remaining chapters of the story to push this brain synching logic to breaking point, immediately having their protagonist connect with increasingly unlikely figures. It dramatically alters the visuals as Sewon can’t stop seeing the world through their eyes—but to say more would spoil the fun.

This contrasts sharply with the grounded style of the opening episode, with cold, crisp visuals typical of a gritty crime series. I was reminded of the short-lived NBC series Awake, in which Jason Isaacs played an insomniac cop unable to tell which of his realities was reality or a dream, in the increased way a detective procedural quickly unraveled, the genre conventions frequently interrupted by horror film hallucinations running into frame

Seo Ji-hye and Jo Bok-rae in dr. brain
Seo Ji-hye and Jo Bok-rae | Apple TV+

The series is the most high-profile yet to be adapted from a webtoon, online comic book platforms. (Depending on where it's hosted, many titles are also translated to English.) The industry is hugely profitable, with many major K-dramas previously adapted from the medium; several of these, such as the horror Sweet Home and the drama D.P., have previously been adapted by Netflix, although they have largely been lost to the streaming algorithm. From a cursory look at Dr. Brain's source material, which wrapped back in 2016, you can see the opening episode follows very much in its footsteps—the artwork now looks like a storyboard, due to how much the director visualizes its earliest beats in the same way.

But Dr. Brain is more than just a straightforward translation from one medium to another. In the show’s best moments, it plays on expectations of TV crime drama visuals, using the brain synch technology to transform the style of how a murder mystery is told. As the show leans more into its silliest possibilities in this regard, the more entertaining it becomes, inviting comparisons to everything from Flatliners to The Fly in how it blends genre thrills with a cautionary high concept tale.

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Alistair Ryder is a contributor to Thrillist.