Dr. Brain’s bizarre dreamscapes will get inside your head [Apple TV+ review]

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Dr. Brain review: Director Kim Jee-woon takes us on a wild ride in the Apple TV+ series.
Director Kim Jee-woon takes us on a wild ride in the hot new Apple TV+ series.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s exciting new sci-fi series Dr. Brain continues to unfurl its mysteries this week. Brilliant neuroscientist Sewon draws closer to ascertaining the full shape of the crimes that claimed the lives of his family, thanks to “brain syncs” with both his wife and an unexpected source.

Meanwhile a number of questions hang in the air. Just who is this private detective helping Sewon find answers? Who is the man in Jaeyi’s memories? And who’s still alive — and who’s really dead?

Dr. Brain review: ‘Chapter 2’

When Sewon (played by Sun-kyun Lee) tries his first round of brain-sync sessions to communicate with his comatose wife Jaeyi (Yoo-Young Lee), what he sees looks like a bad dream. He sees her in their bedroom, at first beatific and loving, then panicking about their son Doyoon (Jeong Si-on), then livid because Sewon let him die.

Then Sewon’s in a red room that becomes a sort bath of blood from which she emerges, looking like the elderly woman in Room 237 in the Overlook Hotel. He wakes with a start to find the real Jaeyi’s vitals spiking, as the comatose woman suffers some kind of seizure.

From dream worlds to a murder investigation

Lieutenant Choi (Seo Ji-hye) comes around to inquire again about the murder of one of Jaeyi’s friends, and she reveals something to us: Jaeyi attempted suicide before the drowning that left her in the coma. Of course, Sewon has an answer for her accusations — the incredibly elaborate home setup he has for Jaeyi’s constant care while she remains unconscious. If he wanted to kill her, why go through all that trouble?

The police leave just in time for Sewon to have a hallucination, a kind of fragment of a memory left in his brain from the sync. He sees Junki Lim (Kim Ju-hun), the man the police suspect him of killing, with his young daughter, Heejin. Sewon seeks out Kangmu (Park Hee-soon), a detective Junki hired to investigate Sewon.

Junki had grown close to Jaeyi (they became acquainted because their children went to the same special needs school). And when she had her accident, Junki naturally assumed Sewon had tried to hurt her. Now that Junki’s dead, Sewon wants the information Kangmu found out, namely the nature of the relationship between Jaeyi and Junki was, how they met, and if their deaths/near death experiences are linked.

Kangmu takes Sewon to Junki’s house and he has another attack of foreign memory, this time seeing the death of Junki as if it were happening to him in the hallway. Sewon sees more and more of Heejin in the uncontrollable flood of memories he’s receiving from his wife’s brain, and he witnesses a moment where the little girl tells Jaeyi that Doyoon isn’t dead. And that’s when he finds the newly dead cat in Junki’s yard. Maybe the pet’s got some information worth syncing…

If this part is film noir, this part is mystery

In 2018, Catalan director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, Jungle Cruise) directed the pilot episode for a short-lived TV show called Reverie about a detective sent into a dream world through software to solve a mystery. It only ran one season, so we never quite got to see the full potential of a director with a truly idiosyncratic visual style directing hallucinations and nightmares on TV week after week.

Dr. Brain, among its other fine qualities, is at last the realization of that potential. Series writer/director Kim Jee-Woon is not perhaps thought of first and foremost as a director with a surrealist streak. He’s no slouch when it comes to directing fantastical things. But if anything, his certainty is what makes his dream language so thoroughly engrossing. You trust the real world enough that the intrusions of the dream world feel like true invasions, the betrayal of stability.

This week’s episode is perhaps a touch slower than Dr. Brain’s breakneck pilot but it’s no less grabby. Indeed, my internet kept failing as I watched it, so it took much longer than the episode’s 49 minutes to finish watching it, and yet it flew by. It’s incredibly rare to see pacing like this on TV. (Another Apple TV+ sci-fi series, Foundation, approaches this, but that show truly is just action sometimes.) Dr. Brain exhibits an unyielding momentum, where every zoom and pan draws you down a corridor of suspense, of secondhand longing and mistrust, of unbelievable sights and sounds.

A director in full control

This week’s episode, titled simply “Chapter 2,” starts to show where director Kim Jee-Woon’s head is at vis-a-vis the nightmares and dreams upon which Sewon will be eavesdropping. My favorite image of the show so far is when, after her abrupt mood swing, Jaeyi flops back against a wall only for it to splatter. The wall behind her becomes a wet painting before devolving completely into the red room where Sewon sees his wife emerge from a pool of blood.

It proves wonderfully jarring because it doesn’t break with the visual language the show employs, so you really do feel like a creeping logical failure has overtaken your senses.

Later, when Sewon gets a phone call from Choi saying that the man he thinks is Kangmu is an impostor, and then there’s a knock on the door… shudder-inducing.

Dr. Brain puts me in a headspace I cherish, one I perhaps first encountered watching either Henri Georges-Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques or the final reversal in Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring, where something impossible and dreadful has happened and now a new reality is on the other side of the door just feet away from you. It can’t, shouldn’t, be real, but there’s a knock nevertheless.

Kim is upfront about his generic trappings (the coroner invokes film noir while showing Junki’s body to Choi) and thus he’s priming you for what’s about to happen. He’s playing fair and still acing every dramatic idea through expert sound design, framing and camera movement. With Dr. Brain, we find ourselves in the hands of a great director doing his best work.

Watch Dr. Brain on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dr. Brain arrive Thursdays on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On The Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.