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Cobweb review: Korean satire spins a few too many threads

On paper, this Korean satire about filmmaking is fascinating, but Cobweb flails too much to keep the viewer engaged throughout.

Cobweb, directed by Kim Jee-woon, is set in 1970s South Korea, where a film director of some notoriety is having trouble with his latest film. Plagued by alternative versions of the film that come to him in dreams, Director Kim Ki-yeol (played by Parasite‘s Song Kang-ho) pushes to re-shoot the ending to his film, Cobweb, in just two days.

Cobweb – the film within a film – is done in a similar vein to The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain, Chubby Rain in Bowfinger, and Tropic Blunder in Tropic Thunder. The plot revolves around a love affair and a family drama, with over-the-top acting, vengeful killers and spiders thrown into the mix – it’s like an episode of a soap opera if it were directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

While the cast and crew scramble to finish the director’s vision, they are plagued by budget blow-outs, actor’s spats and meddling studio execs. Just a regular film shoot, in other words. But many mysteries surround the set of Cobweb, mysteries that get deeper as the shoot drags on.

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Cobweb is part parody, part loving homage to shlocky Korean genre films of the 70s. In the 1970s South Korea saw a marked decline in quality of its major cinematic releases. This was partly due to the rising popularity of TV (which is referenced in the film when the lead actress yearns to get back to television work), but also due to strict censorship which aimed to quash any ‘anti-authority, socially realistic or politically conscious’ films.

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Song Kang-ho is wonderful as the equal-parts self-absorbed and self-doubting Director Kim, perfectly balancing the line between dry humour and full blown freakouts as his film gets closer and closer to being cancelled forever.

Kim’s mentor at Shinseong Film Studio, Director Shin, died many years ago. But his golden reputation – and his smoking spectre – still looms large over Kim’s work, which has been consistently panned by critics. These critics aren’t afraid to tell Kim how they really feel, and will pan his work right to his face as he’s eating lunch.

‘Criticism is an act of revenge by those who can’t make art,’ Kim thus laments in his internal monologue. ‘In two days I can make a masterpiece showing humanity’s irrational nature. Everyone will say I’ve surpassed my debut feature.’

The rewrites on Cobweb begin. He continues by saying he wants to ‘expose humanity in all of its perversity’. It must be wonderful for Song Kang-ho to play a character so unaware of himself, existing completely on the opposite side of the spectrum to the overly self-conscious Kim Ki-tae of Parasite. Yet both these characters share lofty (read: delusional) ambitions, which seems to be a sweet spot for the actor.

Before the shoot can begin, Kim faces pushback from Chairwoman Baek (Jang Young-nam), the president of the company – and wife of his former mentor. Her priority is stripping the Cobweb set so that another film, Aimless Bullet of Love (another shlock fest), can begin shooting. Recognising Baek’s stubbornness, Kim decides instead to do the reshoots behind her back – hoping to be in and out of the studio before she notices.

Production assistant – and mentor Shin’s niece – Mido (Jeon Yeo-been, playing over-eager ingenue with aplomb) is apparently the only person that believes in Kim’s artistic vision. Kim is obsessed with long-takes, or as he calls them ‘plan-séquence‘ (which is the same term but in French), which he believes will save his film. Mido becomes singularly devoted to finishing Cobweb in this manner, and uses her influence at the studio to get the reshoot started.

The plot of Cobweb (the film-within-a-film) is intentionally confusing, with Kim’s rewrites only serving to make it more muddled. The construction of his scenes are fascinating to watch, especially the comparisons of how a scene is dressed, blocked and lit versus what it looks like on black & white film – but the focus of the feature lies elsewhere, flitting between the various on-set personal dramas and the studio’s financial woes. It is slightly ironic that a film about a film that’s too long and confusing is … too long and confusing.

At two hours and 15 minutes, the film begins to feel like a bit of a chore, and all the good fun to be had between takes starts to lose focus. ‘What is it? A racy drama, horror film, disaster pic, creature movie?’ bemoans Chairwoman Baek. The line is an obvious meta-commentary, but I’m not sure such self-awareness wins back favour from the audience as the confusion becomes less and less accessible.

There’s an on-set romance, complete with secret trysts, tears, and lover’s tiffs, between actors Han Yu-rim (Krystal Jung) and Kang Ho-se (Oh Jung-se). And there is the actor going full method, living as his detective character on and off set. ‘I even have a prison cell at home’, he tells his fellow cast member. ‘I sleep there when the wife is angry with me’. This will be important later, when the film’s central mystery gets going – but it takes a while.

Even more turmoil surmounts when government censorship enters the mix, with the studio worried that Cobweb will come across as an anti-establishment film. It hits all the beats expected of a film about filmmaking in 1970s Korea, but it doesn’t always sing.

Cobweb sings when it leans into its absurdity, like when Director Kim gets fed up with a drunk actor and decides to play the part of The Hunter himself, complete with fake beard. He directs the scene from the actor’s side of the camera, but forgets to call cut when he gets too choked up at the ‘moving’ dialogue that he wrote.

On paper, this Korean satire about filmmaking is fascinating, but Cobweb flails too much between its various spun threads to keep the viewer engaged throughout.

It does look gorgeous though, and it’s worth a viewing if you’re interested in Korean cinema or meta-textual films.

Cobweb is in cinemas from 5 October 2023.

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3.5 out of 5 stars

Actors:

Song Kang-ho

Director:

Kim Jee-woon

Format: Movie

Country: South Korea

Release: 05 October 2023

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports