Upon taking an interest in South Korean cinema, the first three names a Westerner is likely to learn are Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon. Throughout the ’00s, all three directors established themselves, and South Korean cinema in general, as purveyors of darkly comic, satirical, and brutal genre films. They’re the Nolan, Tarantino and Fincher of South Korea. It’s likely to be personal preference whose films you enjoy the most. Bong’s are the most political, Park’s the most poetic, and Kim’s the most thrilling. Yet, Kim Jee-woon is probably the least respected of the three, making genre movies, savage thrillers like I Saw the Devil, exhilarating action movies like The Good, the Bad, the Weird and spine-tingling horrors like A Tale of Two Sisters, his films are the lowest brow of the three. It’s hard to imagine Park Chan-wook teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Johnny Knoxville for their English language debuts (yes that actually happened and The Last Stand is a hoot, check it out).
Cobweb is therefore easy to read as, if not autobiographical (the film is set in the early ’70s for a start), then at least a reflection of Kim’s own professional insecurities. Cobweb stars that perennial titan of South Korean cinema, Song Kang-ho, as Director Kim. Derided as a purveyor of trashy, low-brow melodramas who hasn’t made a decent film since his debut, Kim is desperate to prove himself worthy of his late mentor’s (Jung Woo-sung) legacy and has literally dreamed up a new ending for his latest erotic thriller that will prove his vision, with a film that exposes the fundamental irrationality and selfishness of humankind. If only he can fulfill his feverish desire to re-shoot it.
Cobweb catalogs his efforts to do so through a screwball backstage comedy a la Birdman, One Cut of the Dead or Babylon, following his attempts to herd his exhausted cast and crew of hysterical divas, obsessive method actors, and philandering leading men through a tight two-day reshoot, trying to get his radical vision in the can before the philistine government censors arrive and shut him down.
His namesake is hardly a flattering self-portrait, Kim’s a pill-popping prima donna who believes “criticism is an act of vengeance by those who cannot make art”, whose career has been plagued by rumors that his mentor ghostwrote his first (and only good) film. The real director Kim has had his missteps (his remake of The Wolf Brigade is one of the most dumbed-down pieces of nonsense I’ve ever witnessed) but there’s no justification behind this impostor syndrome. Kim’s a great director and there are consistent flourishes throughout Cobweb that demonstrate that. Sadly, the film falls short of its ambitions.
It’s just too predictable. Spontaneity is essential to any screwball comedy and there’s just no surprises or sense of pace here, which is surprising given that Kim has made some of the most pulse-pounding films of the millennium. The characters of Cobweb are all familiar archetypes and any efforts to flesh them out and make them real don’t really run deep enough to breathe new life into them, even with such a talented cast. The film does build to a strong climax as the crew try and re-shoot the climax, a technically tricky sequence with many moving parts, all done in one take as a fire consumes the set. It’s a plausible approximation of a tense set piece and the behind the scenes insight is neat, but doesn’t really stick the landing. Next to a comparable sequence from One Cut of the Dead, it’s clear where this just doesn’t have the requisite organic live-wire energy.
There’s something almost Almodovar in the retro aesthetics and hammy acting of Kim’s cast and the absurdist soap opera backstage drama playing with levels of narrative fiction. Cobweb starts promisingly, but it doesn’t really go anywhere or develop beyond the basic low hanging fruit. It still manages to raise a few laughs, the bit player who’s method acting at being a detective and starts to believe there’s a conspiracy among his co-stars is funny, but again, it doesn’t build to a punchline, it’s just one amusing running gag of many and nothing we’ve not seen before. It all feels spread too thin. Despite its generous runtime it doesn’t have any greater depth than the average ninety minute comedy. The film is set against the backdrop of government censorship during the 1970s dictatorship, with the cast and crew at risk of arrest for defying the government’s attempt to shut them down, but aside from adding some stakes to the plot (stakes that never feel all that real, I never actually feared the film would end with any of my favorite characters getting arrested) the film doesn’t have any actual political edge to it.
The film our hero is trying to get made could’ve been almost anything, but it’s a campy, racy film noir with lots of sex and violence and laugh-out-loud funny twists. The ultimate punch-line is that even with Kim’s radical and subversive new vision, the film he’s trying to make is clearly both awful and exactly the kind of hysterical low-grade nonsense a studio like this would be churning out at a rate of a dozen a year throughout the ’70s. It’s the South Korean equivalent of a Hammer movie, albeit a pretty fun one from the looks of it. Arguably the most entertaining parts of Cobweb are the scenes of the movie within a movie he’s trying to make, it looks insane and makes no sense, but in exactly the way such movies typically do. By reshooting it, Kim’s trying to lend it the kind of strange, intense appeal that modern audiences have found in reappraising such films, but if he thinks he’s winning any awards for this stuff back in 1970, he’s deluding himself.
I really wanted to like this, I’ve been really hyped for it ever since I missed it at Cannes last year. I love some of Kim Jee-woon’s other films and the idea of him making a film about a director struggling to film his masterpiece and wrestling with artistic, financial and political constraints under the South Korean dictatorship sounds amazing, but this just fell short of my hopes for it. It’s probably a better film than I’m giving it credit for and it might grow on me once the disappointment wears off, but for now, I just wanted more from it. It’s amusing in a wry, low-key kind of way and will probably satisfy most viewers, but it lacked the depth, the radical bite, the poetry and the excitement I was really hoping it would bring.