Writer-director Jim Jee-woon reteams with Parasite actor Song Kang-ho in this delirious, self-knowing satire on the filmmaking process. Cobweb asks meaningful questions about the creative process of bringing stories to life, Jee-woon certainly has similar thoughts to the film’s titular character, Kang-ho’s Director Kim, which led to the creation of such a brilliantly reflexive film.
Director Kim (Song Kang-ho) is a troubled filmmaker with the desire to create impactful films but just hasn’t pulled it off yet. He’s mocked by film critics for making trashy films and for supposedly imitating his deceased master, whom he worked with on his final film. Having shot his latest film from start to finish, the crew is ready to move on to their next projects. But Director Kim has other plans after a dreamy epiphany compels him to fight for a few extra days to reshoot many of the film’s vital scenes.
He believes with these changes, Cobweb (aptly titled the same as the film’s title) will be his masterpiece. Director Kim manages to persuade many of his crew members to reunite to finish the film, he is convinced nothing will go wrong and the outcome will be amazing. It’s not an easy process as the South Korean censorship board reject the rewrite as being anti-establishment, but with many drinks and some crafty persuasion, they are allowed to proceed with the shoot under the guise of the film being anti-communist in nature.
The film unexpectedly opens with an old-looking, black-and-white film that quickly catches the audience off guard. As “cut” is called, we are snapped into a coloured reality on the set of a movie. This instantly establishes the structure of Jee-woon’s film, an inter-splicing narrative between diegetic and non-diegetic (the b&w camera footage). It’s a meta film to its core, Jee-woon embraces being self-knowing and relishes it to bring out some great comedy.
Song Kang-ho is a perfect Director Kim, he plays a great, deeply psychologically tormented artist. You believe the anguish that he feels; he is, literally, haunted by his master who inspires him while on the brink of breaking down. Aiding him is the feisty and hilarious Jeon Yeo-bin, who is the standout among Jee-woon’s large ensemble. She is a top-notch comic in every scene as she overrides her aunt, who owns the film’s production company, as she buys into the masterpiece narrative that Director Kim has been selling. Soo-jung plays the role with all seriousness, believing in her character’s every move. Adding to the dramatism of the film is K-pop star Krystal Jung who stars as Han Yu-rim, a dramatic actor who has little to prove until she falls ill and her role is taken by a non-actor. The acting, overall, is a well-oiled machine as everyone on screen delivers glimpses of greatness, fully buying into the two worlds of the film.
Decision to Leave cinematographer Kim Ji-yong brings a sense of dynamism to the film’s visuals. Crafting two distinct styles, the black-and-white in-film footage is beautifully dramatic as he adopts the chaotic and thrilling elements of the script’s rewrites. The climactic scene is a much-discussed handheld long take that is the pinnacle of the film-within-a-film footage. The other, real-world shots adapt to the melodramatic anarchy of the filmmaking process, it remains orderly in style while also brilliantly representing the disarray of the free-for-all on the film set.
The film works as a meta-comedy, peeling back the layers of trouble that filmmakers face through comedy. The humor is distinctively Korean, it’s witty in a way that Hollywood struggles to achieve. It’s also clear that Jee-woon is having a great time here, directing an adventurous satire about the very thing that he is doing. The satire here is meant to exaggerate the toughness of creating art, but despite all the struggles the message is that anyone can achieve greatness if you have the passion to pursue your dreams. It’s subtly touching on reflection.
Despite being slightly overlong, Cobweb makes for an immersive experience as one descends into a state of active delirium. It works as a meta-movie, unveiling the chaos of filmmaking, but also as an amusing comedy that’s based in reality, yet taking things to the edge of absurdity. Song Kang-ho and Im Soo-jung put in first-rate performances as two very different characters, one a struggling B-movie director and one a crafty manipulator with sheer belief in the masterpiece in the making. Cobweb asks interesting questions that those involved in the film world will be amused and engaged by, sniggering at the ins and outs of this brilliantly reflexive movie.
This review is from the 2023 BFI London Film Festival. Samuel Goldwyn Films will release Cobweb in the U.S.