Cobweb

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cobweb
"Its pastiches of mid-20th Century Korean cinema are beautifully observed and a lot of fun."

Hollywood has told the story of the thwarted auteur so often that we all know it by heart: the wide-eyed outsider who dreams only of creating art and gradually has that dream pulled to bits by a cynical industry, compromising his way to oblivion. In Cobweb, I Saw The Devil director Kim Ji-woon tries to do something a little different with that premise, focusing on a character who already has a few films under his belt and has already finished his latest one but, inspired by an actual dream, believes that he can turn it into something much better: “a masterpiece with breathless scenes exposing humanity in all its perversity.” He only needs two more days. Will his industry colleagues cooperate? Should they?

A loosely scripted farce which often veers off course, Cobweb succeeds, where it does, because of its specificity. Its pastiches of mid-20th Century Korean cinema are beautifully observed and a lot of fun. It also pokes fun at the state’s interference in filmmaking in the Seventies, and even though it doesn’t really know where to take this, the characterisation is spot on, as is Kim’s take on how it shaped studio output. This was a period when the country was desperate for its art to be taken seriously. It’s only since the resulting efforts relaxed that it began to stand out as it does now.

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Fictional director Kim Ki-yeol (Song Kango-ho, best known to Western audiences from Parasite) wants to give his film a new ending. Kim Ji-woon’s film needs one. Farce needs to be written with the ending in sight or it easily become overindulgent and scattershot, which is what has happened here. There are plenty of ideas at play but they crowd one another and badly need a disciplined approach to draw them together.

Ki-yeol is taunted by critics, told that he owes the success of his début film to his mentor and that everything he has made since then is trash. In due course we will learn the fate of that mentor, as Kim ji-woon takes a well-deserved swipe at auteur theory and the worship of extremes. He’s supported by the daughter of the former studio head, a young woman with short hair (which, in that period, would have marked her out as a rebel and probably a lesbian), whose loyalty gives way to an adjacent obsession which gives him a taste of his own medicine. Meanwhile, his star (Lim Soo-jung) is having second thoughts about her character and his married leading man (Oh Jung-se) is having a secret affair with a supporting actress (Jung Soo-jung) who is gradually going off the rails for reasons which will complicate matters still further. In a cute touch which might have been developed further, the affair is discovered by a method actor playing a detective.

Kim Ji-woon’s previous work has been notable for its visual flair. There are touches of that here, exploiting the different possibilities offered by the premise. It comes together most spectacularly in the film-within-a-film, which is fair, because it functions as a means of distinguishing art from reality, but it’s still frustrating to feel that we’re being denied, elsewhere, what he does best. There are lots of good things in Cobweb but throughout it feels as if it’s just falling a little short of what it ought to be, and in the end its promise fizzles out.

Reviewed on: 09 Feb 2024
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An experimental and genre-defying drama shot entirely on sound stages in support of a film-within-a-film narrative.

Director: Kim Ji-Woon

Writer: Shin Yeon-Shick

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jeon Yeo-binJung, Woo-sung, Kim Min-jae

Year: 2023

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: South Korea


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