If you’re just looking for a light piece of Korean film history with an all-star cast, there’s an enjoyable irony to Kim Jee-Woon’s Cobweb.
A self-conscious mess of soap-opera entanglements, Cobweb is a movie within a movie set in 70’s Korea. It tells the story of director Kim Yeol (played by the ever charming Song Kang-Hoo) chasing artistic recognition while he races to remake his own movie’s ending in a one-day shoot: battling drunken censors, spoiled actors and his own inner demons in the process. Taking on the real director’s first name , there’s no real doubt that Kim Yeol is gifted or special, but there’s a frantic enjoyment as you watch the spiraling team-effort that goes into making a movie. Costumes shine in bringing that 70’s setting here (dandy checkered jackets and flares aplomb) and the drama-comedy is further amped up by a dysfunctional old-school Korean movie system (one highlight being a censor’s request to ‘burn commies’).
As the mind behind I Saw The Devil, Kim-Jee Woon has a gift for switching up genres, but he plays this struggle out more or less as a watchable farce. Interspersing the light-hearted element of making the film, is the black and white horror movie-within-a-movie, where the film gets its Cobweb title from. This is the film that’s driving Kim’s desperate sense of artistry. From the outset, we get glimpses of the movie, and unfortunately, it quickly feels like this is the film that both director’s want to make. How could you not? This campy psycho horror feels old-fashioned even for the 70s but is so lovingly evocative of the classic Golden Age Korean movies you can’t help but want the on-set drama to end, and for director Kim to step into every frame and click play.
Would that work? I’ve never seen a Song Kang-ho performance that hasn’t made me smile (even in Memories of a Murder he can nail a drop-kick). And between the two movies, the ensemble cast of actors (Krystal Jung, Im Soo-jung, Oh Jung-se and Jeon Yeo-been) bounce off each other’s spidery maze of conflicts well (there’s even a method acting detective to help keep tracking this all relatively simple). Unfortunately the digital format has that slick ‘Made for Netflix’ edit: stuffed with quick cuts, overdone musical scores and hit points that are as ephemeral as they are fun to watch. At a visual level, the film shines when in action (particuarly it’s complicated maze of single take shots at the end), but compared to the rest of the strong Cannes and LFF outings, it never really captures that lacquered black and white homage it tries to recreate.
Running at over two hours, the frustration that you’re effectively seeing teaser trailers for the better and more artistic black and white movie is hard to swallow as an audience. When obstacles build and production takes one too many breaks, the film’s twin energy becomes far too tied up and quickly bloats. Calling criticism ‘an act of rage’ as his directorial self-insert, annoyingly, Jee-Woon never decides if his film-within-a-film is a love-letter or a pastiche to his source material. What’s left of the outer-experience is almost hung-up to dry: wrapping up a movie that’s fun, frenetic and just a little stretched.