Rory DohertyI11.3.2023
Kim Jee-woon Interview – Director of ‘Cobweb’
"One of the most important things to not get defeated by life is through humor, to escape that challenging moment and then to overcome and mature."

Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon may be best known for his impeccable run of flashy, introspective genre films in the 2000s, but his latest film Cobweb doesn’t just feel like a departure from his recent work—it reaches back to the origins of his career. His funniest film to date, Cobweb watches ’70s director Kim Ki-yeol (Song Kang-ho) spiral into obsessive mania while trying to reshoot an incomplete psycho-thriller without approval from the dogmatic censors.

After a decade of adaptations, streaming shows, and safe genre pics, Kim Jee-woon has made a personal film that grapples with Korea’s complicated film history and reminds us of the blackly comic early work from the maestro. We talked with Kim Jee-woon at the BFI London Film Festival 2023 about his riotous and ironic “love letter to cinema.”

Projektor: What’s your personal relationship with this era of Korean cinema? At what point did you learn of the context of censorship and restrictions?

Kim Jee-woon: In the 1970s, when I was [growing up], the first mainstream Korean culture that I encountered was film and pop. So there’s a real nostalgia in me for that time and the culture that took place. It was only when I was older that I realized that this was actually the dark ages for Korean cinema, which I obviously found hilarious.

Korea is slower compared to other countries in terms of the recovery of cinema following the pandemic, according to all indices. Cinema [now] currently is comparable to Korean cinema in the 1970s; through this film I thought we could look at filmmaking and reviving the film industry.

The film is about reflecting on cinema. What do you think has changed most significantly in Korean cinema over these decades?

The 1960s was the first renaissance in Korean cinema, where you had over 200 films being produced, and the average Korean person watched 60 films per year, a huge blossom period. However in the 1970s censorship began, film production was more than halved down to 80 films per year, and the average Korean person watched maybe two to three films per year.

Now, post-pandemic in Korea, the indices of Korean audiences are exactly the same as back in the 1970s. Therefore, there is a big fear and question: is film going to disappear and become extinct in Korea? [So] in the ’70s, what did our senior directors in Korea do, how did they navigate these dark ages? How did they get their films made? How do they protect their passion? These are the questions I had when I was making the film Cobweb.

You’ve noted this as a return to comedy after much darker, violent films. But there’s a gothic, macabre darkness to Cobweb that’s similar to your early films like The Quiet Family. How did you find balancing darkness and lightness again?

I think, for me, a comedy has to reveal the paradoxes, the irony, the injustices of life. It reveals life’s pathos in this way. That’s where the humor comes from, that’s the ingredients for comedy—paradoxes, irony, and injustices. So in a way, this film can be both funny and sad.

Chaplin also once said, close-up it could be a tragedy, but from afar it could be a hopeful story. So regardless of whatever the situation is, or in life in general, once you make it more expansive, you have more distance and perspective. Through humor, you can overcome difficulties and mature in this way, which is what I think black humor can do as an appropriate metaphor.

“Regardless of whatever the situation is, or in life in general, once you make it more expansive, you have more distance and perspective.”

There’s also a psychological angle to the story. Every filmmaker wants to make their passion projects, but there’s a sense that Kim Ki-yeol needs to reshoot his ending so he can understand his own mind. What was it like working that aspect into the comedy?

This could be quite a serious and heavy subject, however telling it through comedy can counteract some of the toughness that comes out of it. When living life in the worst moments, one shouldn’t lose one’s sense of humor; it’s a mature way to deal with my life. One of the most important things to not get defeated by life is through humor, to escape that challenging moment and then to overcome and mature.

On Cobweb’s recreations of ’70s Korean cinema, what about the visuals and performances did you want to heighten about this classic style for a modern audience?

Moreso in the ’60s, less so in the 1970s, Korean films used voice actors in post-production to record over the actors’ dialogue. So there was this very exaggerated speech and it was very different from the way [we] speak in real life. I think Western audiences may not know this so clearly, so I don’t know if they can notice a difference. I’m very curious about how they see that in the film. There’s this very flashy, exaggerated, slightly show-off way of speaking, articulating and enunciating, that’s what I emphasized. The actors themselves were using this kind of dialect that would have happened in post-production, but doing that on set.

Song Kang-ho has played lots of different parts across your films: in westerns, war films, comedy and crime capers. What was it like directing him playing a director?

Prior to this, actor Song worked together across various genres, as you say playing very different characters. And each time, I feel like we achieved either a critical or commercial success. Working with one another [so successfully] really builds trust and affection for one another. When casting for the role of a director, I felt that the actor needed a certain type of presence to be able to play this role, and really, he is a superior choice. He did so incredibly well in this film, as always. He is an actor that’s representing Korea and [is] now a worldwide actor, and as his acting improves and matures, so does he as a human being in terms of his integrity and humanity.

Personally, there are very specific domains, whether it’s emotions or thoughts or narratives that I would like to portray. And compared to other actors, he really is the only actor that can complete and express that vision on my behalf. Working with him is always fun, I’m always very excited and curious to see what we create together.

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