Dr. Brain just keeps getting weirder and wilder! [Apple TV+ review]

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Dr. Brain review: Things just keep getting wilder in this action/sci-fi stunner.
This action/sci-fi stunner looks unstoppable!
Photo: Apple TV+

In this week’s episode of Dr. Brain, neuroscientist Sewon Koh discovers a powerful ally as he chases new leads while searching for his son and his wife’s killer. Reality and the imaginary begin to blend in a way that suggest he soon may not be able to tell them apart.

Oh, and Sewon’s new ally? It’s in his brain! Apple TV+’s trippy new South Korean sci-fi/mystery series just keeps getting wilder.

Dr. Brain review: ‘Chapter 3’

In the episode, titled simply “Chapter 3,” Sewon (played by Sun-kyun Lee) gets a visit from Kangmu (Park Hee-soon) just at the moment his trust in everything is collapsing. Minutes before Kangmu’s arrival, Lieutenant Choi (Seo Ji-hye) assured Sewon that Kangmu was actually dead. But if that’s the case, is the man outside an impostor … or something else?

Kangmu coaches Sewon through the question, and then it’s off to the morgue where they find his body. Turns out he brain-synced with Kangmu’s corpse without realizing it and now Kangmu’s memories are trapped in Sewon’s brain.

If you want some indication why Dr. Brain rises a cut above most TV, consider that this episode races from The Sixth Sense to Solaris by way of Inception in five minutes without blinking an eye. And we still have 50 minutes of plot left to get through!

New mysteries

Sewon now has a few new mysteries to solve, like who killed Kangmu, and how he ended up being the body that he first synced with. Sewon presumed it was an accident, but he didn’t actually procure the body for brain syncing. No, that would be his unwilling accomplice, Namil Hong (Jae-won Lee), his colleague at the research center.

Anyway, Sewon and Kangmu’s ghost head to the scene of the car accident that claimed Kangmu’s life. He was headed for Junki Lim’s (Kim Ju-hun) house, but he can’t remember exactly why. The ghostly apparition of Kangmu also can’t remember the precise moment of his death — but Sewon can. Kangmu was being followed, and whoever ran him off the road came down to finish the job.

Turns out it was the same guys from the dead cat’s recollection of the murder of Junki. But who are these mystery men? And who are they working for?

Breakneck pacing

At this point, I want to acknowledged that everything I just described happens in the first 15 minutes of this week’s episode. Dr. Brain is so jammed with incident you’d think it might get hard to follow. But director Kim Jee-Woon is such a dynamo with action choreography, and such an elegant storyteller, that you absorb everything and all but beg for the next turn of events.

It should at some point beggar belief, any one of these developments, but between the gorgeous direction, Kim’s storytelling brio, the photography by Kim Cheon-seok, the pulsing score by Mowg, and the committed performances from the leads, it all just flows.

Kim Cheon-seok built up a resume over the last decade, but Dr. Brain marks his highest-profile work yet. Mowg, on the other hand, is everywhere. Kim’s regular composer since I Saw the Devil in 2010, he also worked on hits minor and major like Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, Peninsula and Burning.

This team works beautifully together, creating a kind of permanently insomniac netherworld of crooks and cops and ghosts. The scenes where Kangmu appears to Sewon as a kind of grinning devil on his shoulder, coaching him through a lie detector test and a brawl, are delicious. Park makes for an excellent grotesque, an oily eel in sunglasses finally enjoying the fact that he can’t be stopped or held accountable anymore.

Action!

This is the first time Kim’s gotten to indulge in his love of action choreography since the show started, and he makes a meal out of the fight Sewon has with the two thugs who killed Kangmu and Junki. Because of Sewon’s brain syncs, he can now see what’s going to happen when they come for him because he’s getting extra-sensory help, so he’s able to subdue his attackers with little effort expended. It’s pretty cool, and I hope it hints at more of this stuff down the line.

The big revelation this week comes after Choi shoots and kills one of Sewon’s attackers. Sewon brain-syncs with the dead man in the morgue, discovering that the killers were sent to off Junki at the behest of a mysterious benefactor. Then they had to go back for Junki’s daughter, Heejin. Turns out the thug didn’t have the heart to bury the kid, so he left Heejin with an old girlfriend.

The chase scene where they retrace the guy’s steps on the night he failed to kill Heejin is right out of Tony Scott’s magnificent Déjà Vu, and the scene where they look for her in the woods seems like a deliberate callback to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It’s exactly the kind of pop cinema bingo I expect from Kim.

Dr. Brain unfolds like a fascinating thesis on the last 30 years of action/sci-fi as the genre crossed global borders and returned with new stamps on its passport.

Watch Dr. Brain on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dr. Brain arrive Fridays 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.