Rory DohertyI11.4.2023
‘Cobweb’ Review – The Curse of a Vision
Kim Jee-woon's farcical take on '70s genre filmmaking in Korea is an elegy to the unsung filmmakers who paved the way under strict creative constraints.

A deluge of Western “love letters to cinema” has left us starved for any perspective on movie-making that looks at any untouched and unappreciated corner of film history. Trust Kim Jee-woon, the Korean Wave filmmaker known for making big splashes across Asia and the West throughout his quarter-century career, to find an angle worth tapping into: how the pressures of making unexceptional genre films in ’70s Korea were both farcical and psychologically challenging. His funniest film to date, Cobweb is a deeply felt hit for the director, one that pastiches both the aesthetics and machinery of Korea’s troubled film history. Like all the best nostalgic period pieces, the laughs are bittersweet; the conditions under which a culture can create popular art determine the depth of its creative expression.

Kim Jee-woon may be a frontrunner for having the greatest disparity between his 2000s and 2010s work. His superlative run of sly, stylish genre extrapolations—led by A Tale of Two Sisters and followed by A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and his still-to-beat masterwork I Saw the Devil—set him up for greatness. But fan hype slowly, gradually deflated over the next decade: his English-language Arnie comeback The Last Stand was flashy but hollow; The Age of Shadows is a fast-paced war film that couldn’t help feel sanitized; Illang: The Wolf Brigade, his relegated-to-Netflix adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s manga work, may be the hardest flop of his career. 

It’s a relief, then, that his next film isn’t just an original, personally-motivated work, but his best in 13 years. Director Kim himself has noted that audiences were thrown by Cobweb not being a horror, but in fact a comedy—specifically a Korean film industry satire. In the 1970s, censorship ruled, the momentum of the ’60s’ thriving industry was curtailed, and audience engagement plummeted. But while it doesn’t belong to the horror genre, Cobweb is about a horror movie: our protagonist, also named Director Kim (Song Kang-ho) is a mid-tier filmmaker struggling to tell the stories he wants in Korea’s cinematic dark age.

His unfinished but fully shot film Cobweb is haunting him: something is wrong with the ending, and his inability to communicate his true artistry lingers in his mind like an acute bout of PTSD. He’s sure that if the ending is reshot, the film will become an objective masterpiece, but the fierceness of his conviction hints at a psychological impulse that goes deeper than just frustrations with studio pressure. To a director driven to instability by guilt and repressed memories, perhaps the only way to frame his desire for mental clarity is having “final cut” privileges on a compromised project. What better way to describe discovering your own personal truth than as your own creative “masterpiece”?

Visually, Cobweb largely flits between the sweeping whip-pans and propulsive tracking shots that have filled Kim’s action and thrillers, and jagged, frenetic hand-held camerawork that feels reminiscent of mockumentary sitcoms. The former fills the spiraling bureaucratic chaos with a manic, determined, and untameable urgency—Director Kim encourages a militant “the show must go on!” panic, no matter how many troublesome actors and government officials they have to intoxicate to keep it moving. The hand-held shots interrupt the breakneck pace with delightful situational comedy, hammering home the baffling and claustrophobic delirium that grips the ramshackle film shoot.

Political pressures and moral messaging no longer originate from government bodies, but capitalist ones.

For much of the film, Cobweb shifts into a heightened homage to ’60s and ’70s Korean filmmaking, showing us what Director Kim’s finished horror film will look like to its contemporary audience. The obvious sets and simpler camerawork evoke an age where time and budget pressures ate into filmmakers’ imagination, but they also remind us of the simple effectiveness of older domestic cinema: these thrillers are delivery systems for easy, popular entertainment.

More than once, Director Kim’s film alludes to landmark Korean films of the period. (Why have an attractive married man lead a choir of female laborers if not to reference Im Sang-soo’s classic The Housemaid?) But often the troubled filmmaker will push for stylised, impressive emotional beats and camera moves that remind us more of the explosion of Korean arthouse thrillers that first rose to prominence in the ’90s—as part of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, that Kim Jee-woon himself played a key part in.

As Director Kim’s stylistic and narrative flourishes struggle to be understood by his cast, crew, and financiers, Cobweb takes on a more melancholy tone: how many artists were sentenced to unremarkable careers not because they were inferior to the groundbreaking voices that would succeed them, but because the conditions needed to realize the extent of their talents didn’t exist? Cobweb feels like an elegy to the artists that laid the groundwork for now worldwide acclaimed artists like Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook, and Bong Joon-ho, but who never got to explore creativity outside of a punishing industry.

Clearly, Cobweb speaks not just to the past but to the present: the Korean box office is recovering from COVID restrictions at a significantly slower rate compared to other countries. This inevitably has an effect on what projects are greenlit; Kim has said he was pressured to make the film for OTT streaming platforms rather than for theatrical release. In a few ways, Cobweb bears similarity to the recent, bitterly cynical Babylon in how it engages with the pain and sorrow that goes into filmmaking on an industrial level, and how nearly all of them still exist today—political pressures and moral messaging no longer originate from government bodies, but capitalist ones.

Cobweb, however, is a tighter, funnier, and more slick beast than Hollywood’s attempts to grapple with its own history. The feuds between actors, the pettiness of superiors, and the chaos of mounting a vision in a time unfeeling to visionaries is fertile ground for Kim Jee-woon’s brand of humor and pathos. But when Cobweb finishes, you’re left with a piercing unease with what stories could be hidden behind old, flickering projections relegated to cinema’s darkest eras.

Read our exclusive interview with director Kim Jee-woon here.

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