Brain (2011)

Been having a bit of binge of medical dramas of late. As is often the case, it starts with one and then one hears about another must-see and on it goes. "Brain" is the latest of four medical dramas that I was sucked into following the past few weeks.

The great achievement of this kdrama lies in the writing of and the casting of a brilliant performer in the role of the main character. Lee Kang Hoon is a bombastic, unlikable neurosurgeon who has several very large chips etched on his busy shoulders. He's something of a genius with an elephant-size ego to match. To declare him a complex character would be akin to saying that water is wet and as a member of the audience, I alternated between dislike, love, loathing, sympathy and love for this powerhouse of doctoring.

No doubt that the story has its fair share of kdrama histrionics and cliches: There's the traumatic childhood with abusive father who drank more than his fair share. There's a lot of top-down yelling and screaming. A bickering couple. A whisper of a love triangle. An emotionally constipated male lead. Egregious politicking in the hospital hierarchy... etc etc etc...

What makes this piece of television a cut above the usual melodramatic chaff is the handiwork of an actor that shifts seamlessly from chewing up the scenery, to emoting flashes vulnerability and angsting over the injustice of having to kowtow to the whims of lesser men. It's a mesmerizing portrayal on different levels and in the hands of such a skilled performer one inevitably succumbs to the charms of the character to the point of rooting for him. And then, there's that tilt of the head... and that swagger...

Despite his busy schedule and his unerring talent for lurching from crisis to crisis, our protagonist still manages to find time to fall in love. Romance isn't his strongest suit and the young resident neurologist that he's supervising manages to somehow get under his skin. He flip flops between a gruff awkwardness and angry posturing around her which is no doubt a coping mechanism for a man who is more emotionally wound up than a top. When he's really awkward, his voice turns shrill and his chin does an odd up and down movement. Like a Ken doll being manipulated by a child who has an urgent need for Ken to be agreeable. It's all very cute really... to watch an otherwise rambunctious grown man turn into a puddle of goo because he just can't tell the woman he loves how he really feels.

Some of the best bits of tv in this series come from watching Lee facing off with his mentor and adversary Kim Sang Chul, a man considered to be the greatest neurosurgeon in the country. On the surface, both men seem as alike as chalk and cheese but as the story progresses, it's clear that these two men have much more in common. It's fascinating to see a kind of A Star is Born subplot emerging in the latter part of the series -- a juxtaposition of two lives going in different directions.

While I like the surgery bits, I am reluctant to declare this the best medical drama I've seen (J medicals take the prize for that one, I think). Shin Ha-Kyun, the amazing talent behind Lee Kang Hoon, is electrifying and without him the show, I don't think would have been quite as enthralling. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot and would say that Brain is an example of how having a great actor in the lead role can make all the difference in the world.