iPhone TV: A Conversation with Kim Jee-woon

By Michael SzalayNovember 11, 2022

iPhone TV: A Conversation with Kim Jee-woon
KIM JEE-WOON has directed some of the most celebrated South Korean films of the last 25 years, including The Quiet Family (1998); A Tale of Two Sisters (2003); The Foul King (2004); A Bittersweet Life (2005); The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (2008); I Saw the Devil (2010); and The Age of Shadows (2016). Most recently, he created Dr. Brain (2021), which is based on a webtoon comic series of the same name. Kim’s Dr. Brain was the first Korean-language series produced for Apple TV+ and launched the streaming service in South Korea. Kim spoke to me in his Seoul studios with often surprising candor about Apple’s considerable impact on Dr. Brain. We also spoke about his upcoming release, Cobweb, and his film career generally. This interview was translated by Irene Seungwon Nam.


MICHAEL SZALAY: Did you come to Apple with the idea for Dr. Brain? If not, how did the project get off the ground?

KIM JEE-WOON: I was informed by a friend of mine that Apple wanted to expand into the Korean market and was looking for a high-concept, highly packaged project. I was working on Dr. Brain at the time, so I told him about the series. He said it seems to match what Apple is looking for and that he would let Apple know about it. I then had a video call with Morgan Wandell, Apple’s head of international content development. We talked about the direction the production could take, and that’s how the series got a pass.

What was the specific concept that you pitched?

The series is a webtoon-based sci-fi thriller about the desire to read another person’s mind. Building a worldview around this innate desire was very interesting to me, and that’s why I started working on Dr. Brain in the first place. I also liked the webtoon’s tone and manner as a noir-style thriller. But above all, I was fascinated by the idea that one could read another person’s feelings and thoughts, as traces in the brain. I consulted a well-known Korean brain scientist, Jeong Jae-seung, and he told me it is theoretically possible and, in fact, that there are currently experiments being done on it. His confirmation gave a boost to the whole process.

You’ve noted in previous interviews that many of your films are about communication breakdowns — whether between two characters or even with oneself. Did you think about the fit between that abiding interest and Apple when pitching Dr. Brain, a drama centrally about communication and technology?

Well, my initial motive for producing the series was my interest in the webtoon and not Apple. It was only later that I started to look for the OTT [over-the-top] platform that could best realize my work as a drama series. So it was more of a timely match. But I do agree with your point that the drama shares much of its worldview with Apple, a communications device company.

[Pause.] I had heard Apple does not produce many works but really goes into detail with each work it does produce. Put in a positive way, it’s a company that is good with details and helps improve a work’s quality. Put in a negative way, it’s a meddler. But I would say Apple is admirable for the high level of focus it brings to each work that comes its way. It’s a company that makes films like it makes its devices. I did find that troublesome and difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day, it’s a great company to work with if you want to increase the overall quality of your work.

Would you say more about some of those difficulties?

We got a lot of notes from Apple. I felt that some of them lacked understanding of the film medium. For example, a note asked why people were moving about in the background next to a blue screen we put up for CGI. That being said, these kinds of issues arise with whomever you work, and other than a few notes like that, the rest were very detailed, accurate, and meticulous.

From whom in Apple were you getting these notes?

I didn’t receive them directly but through my production company. I believe Apple gathered the opinions of various people before sending them in, so there must have been a few among them who lacked understanding of the postproduction process. Ah, another incident comes to mind. In the first episode, Sewon is sitting in his lab doing research when his junior Namil walks into the room. In Korean culture, if your senior or someone you know happens to be doing something when you walk in, you don’t go out of your way to say “hi” because that would be distracting. Both of you just do your own thing and that’s acceptable. But the note I got asked, Why aren’t they saying “hi” to each other? Are they not on good terms? Did something happen between them? I thought it was quite interesting, this gap that arises from cultural differences. But again, other than these few that I’ve mentioned, they were mostly great notes.

A couple of years ago, the director of a murder mystery, Knives Out, complained that he had difficulty with Apple because Apple would not let villains use iPhones. He complained that it was possible, if you were watching the film closely, to solve its mystery, that is, to learn who the killer was based on the phone he was using. Similarly in Dr. Brain, you can figure out who the villains are based on their phones.

I wasn’t very conscious of that in the beginning. Apple devices are so common these days, and a lot of people in the film and design business use iMacs and iPhones. So I didn’t take much note of it, but I did read a media comment after a few episodes were aired that, as you just mentioned, the good and the bad characters could be told apart by looking at whether they were using Apple devices, and that it kills the tension. It was very easy to get the Apple devices sponsored, so to move things along fast, I used them without much thinking, but next time I think I will either wipe out the logo or use a device from a company that is more neutral.

Many of your films pair off in interesting ways. A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil are both revenge thrillers; The Quiet Family and The Foul King share a similar black humor, etc. I want to ask a few questions about A Tale of Two Sisters and Dr. Brain, which share quite a lot. Both works mine horror conventions and feature characters who suffer from dissociative conditions: they see and talk to others who seem to be real, but who turn out to be voices inside their heads.

The biggest similarity between the two works comes from how I used horror as a genre to reflect the anxiety in the characters’ inner states. Dr. Brain was a six-episode series, and I felt that one genre was not enough to explain it fully. So I shifted genre a few times. The first and second episodes are horror/mystery, the third and fourth are thriller, and the fifth and sixth are crime/action that ends in family drama. But because the beginning of the series had strong horror elements, audiences seem to process the whole series as horror. But yes, the two works that you mentioned are similar in their approach to and study of anxiety through the genre of horror.

Your films are famously various. They span so many genres. That’s led to a unique and sometimes hard-to-synthesize career. You’re one of the most celebrated Korean cinema auteurs, and yet your style changes with almost every film.

I’ve been a cinephile since I was young and have grown up watching a lot of genre films. Some clichés are simply repetitive and dull, while others are thrilling because they typify a given genre. For example, when a character unbuttons his gun in a Western, wind often blows and accentuates his movements. This kind of cliché never gets old. So my attempts at filming various genres came out of my passion as a cinephile to materialize those clichés that I find exciting. But more crucially, it is curiosity. A lot of directors just keep making things that they are good at. But for me, once I’ve enjoyed success with one genre, I become curious about another. If I’ve done black comedy, I wonder, What will come from applying my particular filmic sensitivity to the horror genre? Curiosity has always been the driving force behind my work. But there’s something else too, and that’s my desire to escape from the film I am making at any given moment. Sure, I’m in love with what I’m doing and want to see it completed, but at the same time, there’s this urge to run away from it. I think that’s why I’ve always gone for different genres.

As you say, Dr. Brain switches between many different genres. Is it relevant that Sewon, your protagonist, incorporates and switches between many different personalities? And that he gains power from doing so? It’s worth noting that in Dr. Brain, Sewon masters his different personalities and even unites them. In A Tale of Two Sisters, Su-mi’s different personalities tear her apart.

A Tale of Two Sisters and Dr. Brain have similar starting points that lead to very different outcomes. Whereas A Tale of Two Sisters is about the guilt that destroys Su-mi, Dr. Brain is about Sewon’s realization that the solution to the mystery he has been trying to unravel has always been within himself. Su-mi is brought to destruction because she retains an innocence that makes her think she is the cause of all tragedies, so she’s an extremely emotional character, whereas Sewon symbolizes rationality. This led to two very different endings.

I see that. But it’s also true, isn’t it, that Sewon is like a successful film director? He has to contain many voices and bring many different people together. Is he for that reason a particularly interesting figure for you?

I’ve never thought about it quite that way, but I do see a strong connection there. Because a director, like Sewon, has to create images of others. There are good guys and bad guys, victims, perpetrators, middlemen, bystanders, and so on, and one has to put all these characters inside one’s head. Like how Sewon tries to bring the many different images from another person’s memory into focus, a director must also think about many different characters at the same time and how he should bring those characters into color. So yes, there is definitely a similarity between Sewon’s thinking mechanisms and a director’s. Also, a director must always work with the creative and the administrative side simultaneously, and this makes the job multilayered in ways that might even surpass Sewon. Thanks for raising this interesting point.

Sewon leaves Dr. Myung because he thinks Dr. Myung is too influenced by a giant US corporation. He wants his independence and doesn’t want his research used by that corporation. I thought maybe that pointed us to your own story, as a Korean director working with Apple.

A director must be a combination of Sewon and Dr. Myung. I relate to Sewon’s fear in that I also worry about whether a big company might hinder the vision I have for a given film. But at the same time, I cannot ignore the fact that I need capital from a big company if I want to make that film. So I stand somewhere between Sewon and Dr. Myung.

In the webtoon, the big US corporation is a Boston-based pharmaceutical company. In Dr. Brain, it’s based in San Jose. Why did you make that change?

I wanted to pick a city that Korean viewers might have heard of but know little about. I thought picking a city like that as a starting point of this group’s research would add to the mystery. Is there any particular regional characteristic of San Jose you’re referring to? [Smiles.]

Well, the headquarters of Samsung USA is in San Jose.

[Smiles.] I found it interesting that Apple didn’t say a word about the biggest villain using Samsung.

I thought maybe you meant to suggest that Dr. Myung, your villain, works for Samsung in San Jose.

[Smiles.] Well it’s my first time hearing that Samsung headquarters are in San Jose. I didn’t have such intentions, but maybe one of the screenwriters I worked with had the idea.

Your films are so visually dynamic. And they’re often celebrated for their taut pacing and haunting, rich images. I was struck by how well you imported these features into television. What kinds of challenges did the shift to TV present?

I heard that Netflix was much more tolerant in terms of the intensity of expression they allowed than Apple. And I did have my concerns going in, that since Apple makes far fewer films, it might not have a similar level of tolerance. I wondered whether Apple would be okay with scenes of violence, cruelty, and just cinematic expressions in general. For example, in the scene where the first person whose brain Sewon scans gets killed, he is hit multiple times with a big rock and there is blood everywhere. I played Mozart in the background to bring out the grotesque beauty of the scene, but my Korean producing company wondered if Apple would be okay with the amount of blood. But as it turned out, Apple didn’t say a word. It did say that my cinematic use of images to deliver the story could feel a bit unfriendly to a TV audience used to a more friendly, verbal approach to explanation. So with the pilot episode in particular, I accepted Apple’s suggestion to ease the audience into the story verbally rather than visually, and from then on, my main focus was to deliver the story clearly. So I often refrained from using cinematic visuals, but even then, I hear a lot of comments like yours — that Dr. Brain feels very cinematic and full of rich mise en scène.

Of all the films you’ve made, what are your two favorites?

I think the reason I keep making new films is precisely because I don’t have a favorite. Affection and satisfaction are two different things, and I do have affection for every film I’ve made. But I cannot say that I am satisfied with any particular one, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

What do you think most distinguishes you as a director?What do you most want to be remembered for?

I am an introvert who finds it awkward and hard to say things directly. A lot of my characters are like that too, so the audience will take away more from my films if they look into the nuances rather than take characters and objects at face value. I guess one would call that mise en scène. I would like to be remembered as a director who delivers stories through nuances, and who captures actors’ facial expressions compellingly.

Some final questions about your upcoming release, Cobweb, which is set in Seoul in the 1970s and is about a director trying to change his film after it’s received official approval from state censors. Is there a particular genre that best describes Cobweb?

Cobweb portrays the intersection between a story about the protagonists’ filmmaking and the film that they are making. The story about their filmmaking is [a] black comedy while the film that they are making is more of a classic thriller. It would be something like a combination of The Quiet Family and A Tale of Two Sisters.

Do you anticipate a fall release?

Ever since the pandemic, potential release dates have not been clear-cut. Also, because this isn’t a mainstream film, it needs the publicity that comes from winning film festival awards. So the release date will change depending on which festivals we send the film to. But looking at the current postproduction timeline, I would estimate the end of the year or early next year.

Do you have a US distributor yet?

Not yet. But there’s an international team I’ve always worked with. Once the film is finished, I will talk to them and make a decision.

Will there be season two of Dr. Brain?

The American screenwriter is working on the script at the moment.

Are you planning any films after Cobweb?

There are a few that I have been in conversation about, but for the moment, season two of Dr. Brain seems most imminent.

So it’s been greenlit?

I’d say it’s a greenish light.


Michael Szalay is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (2012), New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (2000), and the forthcoming Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television.

LARB Contributor

Michael Szalay is a film and television editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He teaches at UC Irvine and his most recent book is Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television (Chicago, 2023).


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