Monday, January 16, 2012

K-Drama Review: Brain, Episodes 1-2

Contains Spoilers for Episodes 1-2

At the fancy Chunha University Hospital, brain surgeon Dr. Lee Kang Hun is hated by all. Well, maybe not hated, but the dude is seriously unpleasant and he's the bane of the interns' existence because he assigns extra work to already overworked young doctors. Dr. Lee never praises anyone, never tries to soothe his patients' feelings, and he always has to be right. He comes into conflict with Professor Kim, the best doctor at the hospital, who is a man who truly cares about educating others and about caring for his patients. The Professor thinks Dr. Lee is too arrogant, and he predicts that this arrogance will lead to trouble for the patients.

Dr. Lee is actually in a slow-boiling conflict with almost every character in this show. He resents Junseok, a happy doctor who never seems to have any problems, and he's mean to Ji-Hye, the only female intern at the hospital. Dr. Lee is even in conflict with his own mother, who always tries to bring him food and fresh clothes at the hospital, but he rejects her overtures of motherliness. When you add in a lot of hospital politics and people scheming for better positions, plus plenty of cranial traumas and operation scenes, you've got a very compelling medical drama.

I have a fondness for the medical drama genre, though the only medical show I ever truly followed was House (and Scrubs, which I don't think counts--it's more of a medical surrealist comedy). So since I didn't watch ER or Grey's Anatomy or any of the other popular long-runners, I'm not aware of all the standard plot points in a medical show, and as such I get to fully enjoy Brain and all of its intensity.

Things I Loved:

1. The high-stakes atmosphere. It isn't too long before the nail-biting sets in. "Oh no, the food-delivery kid was in a wreck!" "Oh no, Dr. Lee is operating when the Professor banned him from the operating theater for a week!" Most of the conflicts are actually on the realistic side, and the tensions and problems arise from the sort of things that would naturally happen in a hospital full of overachievers. And strangely enough, the tension in the show is not focused on the patients, and I'm actually more worried about how certain catastrophes are going to affect the doctors. It's a strange displacement because I feel like I ought to be sympathizing with the patients more, but Brain rarely takes time to establish the character and personality of the patients, like some other shows do. There is really no time or opportunity to invest in the lives of the patients because we are so in tune with the lives of the doctors. To me this isn't a flaw in the writing, it's just a choice about where to put the focus of the story.

This Show Is Not About Patients. It Is About Me.

2. Layered interaction. Nothing is perfectly simple. There's so much rivalry going on, but no one is really rivals in the exact sense because the Professor is more important than Dr. Lee, and therefore they aren't in a competition. And Dr. Lee is apparently more senior than Junseok and is out of his league as well, so these two aren't in direct competition, though Dr. Lee acts like they are. There isn't a romantic subplot yet (though there will be--I'm predicting Dr Lee--Ji Hye--Junseok), but when we get it, I'm expecting that it will be layered and complex because the people involved are complex.

3. Ji Hye. This show needed a girl in it, and she does pretty well. Even though she's attractive, she's clearly not an eye-candy doctor (you know, like when they cast a supermodel as a neurosurgeon?), and she seems to be successful without being crazily driven and type-A. When Dr. Lee is being a bad boss and grumping at everyone, Ji Hye calls him out for being a jerk. In return, Dr. Lee calls her out for her sloppy work, and says she relies on others to help her out. So she's skilled but has shortcomings, which keeps her from being too perfect. Good stuff!

Is Most Definitely Not a Mary-Sue.

4. Junseok. He's so sweet! He has a good relationship with his parents, he's unfailingly kind to servants and to patients, and he's helpful to Ji Hye. He's even understanding of Dr. Lee, so I'm waiting to see just exactly what Junseok's flaws are.

You Can Keep Waiting--I Have No Flaws.

Complaints: 1. Overacting. For the most part, everyone acts like they would in an American drama--emotions cranked up very subtly into a higher register. But a few character really overact with their eyes, especially Ji Hye and the other young interns. It looks more silly than emotionally gripping.


Family Relationships reveal character. Dr. Lee's family relationships are out of balance, just like his life is out of balance. Junseok has a loving and respectful relationship with his mom and dad who clearly enjoy his company, and this balance carries over into his everyday life.

Power vs. Compassion: The Professor is more concerned with the well-being of his patients, while Dr. Lee only seems to care about patient survival as it reflects his own skill.

Cultural Observances:

The Oppa Whine:  In Korea, girls call their older brothers "oppa" instead of calling them by their names. But "oppa" his gradually come to mean more than big brother--it can mean, Close Guy Friend, Older Guy I Just Met, or Boyfriend, just depending. In most K-Dramas, one of the female characters will croon "oppppaaaa..." when she wants something, and her male friend or boyfriend will inevitably cave to her request. Dr. Lee has a teenage baby sister, so this show marks the first time I've heard the oppa-whine used from a girl to her actual brother. And in this case, it's a justifiable whine--"Oppaaaa, why won't you come home for dinner? Mom misses you."

Nicknames: Nicknames are pretty significant in any K-Drama. Dr. Lee asks an intern why he calls Junseok "Hyung" (big brother) when the intern only calls Dr. Lee "Doctor". The guy replies, "Erm, because I respect you the most!" No, Dr. Lee, it's actually because he likes you the least.

Bowing: Bowing is a standard greeting, so when the Professor snubs Dr. Lee by refusing to return his bows, it's a very harsh gesture. And it keeps happening. How many times is Prof going to snub Dr. Lee? Until he truly changes his bad attitude, I'm guessing. Bowing seem to happen in every other scene in this show or maybe I just notice it more when everyone's in white coats. When the gaggle of interns shows respect, it's like a fiesta of bows!

It's Also Great When They Walk Down the Hall in Formation.

Episode Evaluations: This is a good show. I like how it's focused on the doctors themselves, and seems to be delivering consistent storylines.

Watchable bonus: Here's a trailer for Brain.


  1. Oh thanks for sharing this one. I like foreign shows as most tend to be grittier.

  2. I love Scrubs (one of my favourite lines is when the elderly doctor whose name escapes me for the moment is recounting that the previous night his wife went into cardiac arrest: "Fortunately my mistress knows CPR") but I just can't get into House. Gray's Anatomy had something to begin with but when I tuned in again after a long absence it had succumbed to the usual formulae: character with brain tumour, someone hit by bus etc..

  3. When I first started reading your review I was thinking that this show sounded like a much more series Scrubs with the dynamics you describe.