There are few living filmmakers as versatile as Kim Jee-woon. Beginning his career in musical theatre in the 90’s, the Korean artist would direct his original screenplay A Quiet Family in 1998; mixing drama and comedy with a vision few studios were prepared to back. A breakout success, it launched the face of Song Kang-ho (perhaps best known for his lead part in Parasite), and cemented Director Kim into the kingdom of Korean cult classics. Constantly pushing boundaries, his follow up films were as wide-ranging as they were unique: A Tale of Two Sisters was a first foray into psychosexual horror, while I Saw the Devil remains a standout deconstruction of the revenge thriller, and The Good, The Bad and the Weird, perhaps his most unique, is a balls to the wall Spaghetti Western homage set in Manchuria.
The latest—Cobweb—is a commendable carry-on, both a black and white horror movie, and also an ensemble comedy that sees a 70s era Korean director struggling to reshoot said horror film’s unsatisfying ending.
Wrapping up the screening in the London Film Festival, I spoke with Director Kim inside the Curzon Soho. Relaxing on a red velvet couch, his style, unsurprisingly, is as hard to pin down as his movies: trademark sports shades, a vintage Super-Dry tee, and a trucker cap (emblazoned with asterixes that spell out the words FUCKING AWESOME).
Below, the director opens up about the philosophy behind good filmmaking and what he’s given up to achieve it.
What was your intention in making Cobweb?
During the pandemic, a huge question I had was: is film lost for us forever?
At the time, the Korean film industry exploded, and there was a lot of attraction and interest in a digital format—everyone was moving over to that market in many ways in the pandemic. Over that pandemic, I worried that the film format would disappear forever.
So the big question I wanted to revive was: what is film to me and what does it mean for us? I was in love with film the most early in my life. Then I came across the story Cobweb and decided to reflect those questions in the film.
Is that why you used the older film as a story within a story?
It’s incredibly fun. I have a lot of admiration and love for the classic black and white thriller horror films like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Lee Man-hee’s The Devil’s Stairway. Those two films are referenced throughout the film Cobweb, like the extreme close-ups Hitchcock has.
It was just very pleasurable to make it. After the Korean audiences watched Cobweb, they left quite a lot of requests to actually remake the black and white movie in the film.
Those scenes really stood out for me. Does Kim Ki-yeol [the fictional director in the movie] have a similar philosophy of filmmaking to you?
For me, my actual real-life experiences of being on a film set, the small and big emotions and reflections are reflected in the scene and dialogue of Kim.
For example, the conversation that Kim has behind the set with some actors or the conversation he has with his own teacher [on passion]—those are the things that I’ve felt a lot, those are conversations that I’ve had myself. So those were emotions on filmmaking that I felt a lot and put into Kim.
Although I have never suggested to re-shoot a film two days after completing it!
Kim takes a lot of risks in the movie, so I’m still curious. What’s the most you’ve ever personally sacrificed for a film?
It might be a bit strange to say, but in order to do film well I’ve had the thought of not having opportunities to do anything that might weaken me in some way.
So not making any friends outside of film for example, or having family. In some ways there’s this ordinary life that I’ve been avoiding in order to focus on making films.
If you want to call that a sacrifice, then yes, I suppose that is a sacrifice I’ve made in order to concentrate on film. There’s been a tendency to abandon any other pleasure outside of film to do that.
However, looking back, when I look at the directors who are making great films, they all have a wife and kids and a family of their own! So now I think—wow, did I make the wrong move here? There’s something about the power of being a father…
Sounds like good material for your next movie. But why did you decide to set Cobweb in the 70’s in Korea?
In Korea the prime cinema industry was during the 1960s. There were over 200 films being produced, and an average Korean person throughout one year would watch 6 – 8 films—which is a similar figure to what it was like pre-pandemic.
However, in the 70s, these numbers dropped to half: only 80 films were produced and the film viewership dropped to 2 to 3 films a year per person. Which is exactly what happened in Korea after the pandemic.
So looking at the directors at the time, these new directors who were working in what’s called ‘The Dark Ages’ of Korean cinema, I wanted to know how they got through this challenging time. How did they get through this very challenging time? How did they eventually create a second and third renaissance for Korean cinema?
How did they almost in a way become crazy and protect their craft to create cinema through this time?
It was an interesting setting for me and one we can reflect on today.
And 1970’s pop-culture is the first mainstream culture I experienced growing up—so I have a lot of nostalgia there.
On the setting, one thing I found interesting was how Kim has to deal with so many censors interfering in his work. A few years ago your film I Saw the Devil was denied a certificate in Korea—how do you think censorship affects the way we see movies?
There’s a difference depending on where there’s a conservative or progressive power in place. Currently there’s no overt sense of fear from filmmakers—at the most there can be some reduction in funding and support towards the film industry in the worst case scenario.
There’s no longer the very violent oppression that was the case in the 1970s because the progressive powers can be more pro-film in their policy making. That’s the slight difference now for all of us.
And in Korea, our films love to whistleblow and reflect the reality of society—there are very progressive filmmakers out there. In my own experience, there’s not really a material invasion or direct interference from censors with your own work today.
Since your first film The Quiet Family, you’ve worked so closely with Song Kang-ho on a number of features over the decades. How’s that relationship developed over the years?
As you know from looking at my filmography, his acting improves and he matures and grows. While his acting keeps getting better and better, he also really gives me the impression that he’s maturing into this great person.
In terms of our previous work together, in every film we’ve done, whether it’s the outcome or the achievement, whether it’s the critical reception or the audience, it’s always been very good. There’s a lot of trust between him and me; I can rely on him a lot.
I also like that he wants to be these interesting characters that he can play—he really enjoys looking forward to creating these new dynamic things together. And I have this very unique vision in my mind that I like to express, and for me, he’s the only one who can express that in a particular way.
So when I work with him, the work’s fun but always meaningful.
In terms of the uniqueness, you’ve directed so many genres from Westerns to horror, thriller and comedy—often blending different styles together in one film. But is there one genre you’re most comfortable with?
When you really love film so much, every specific genre has a very specific cinematic code and there’s a different pleasure you can get from that. It’s hard to say. Working across all these genres, though, I really have a desire to show each of those different thrills to an audience.
Right now I’m interested in myself, as I am now, but also who I was when I started exploring these different genres a long time ago. When I was younger, I was very curious and wanted to explore them…Now, there’s a desire in me to go back over each genre and complete each one.
I think I want to know: what will come out of it again?