starring Lim Soo-jung, Oh Jung-se, Song Kang-ho
written by Kim Jee-woon, Yeon-Shick Shin
directed by Kim Jee-woon
by Walter Chaw Kim Jee-woon is such a fine technical director that, for a while, the slapdash of his behind-the-scenes, Living in Oblivion insider piece feels like a meticulously orchestrated machine where every piece hits its mark instead of what I think is intended: silly slapstick arising from sloppy improvisation. There might be a path charted for this picture, but it all plays a little like Calvinball. What I like least is how many edits are timed to various shrieks: the last refuge of the desperate and the wayward. Screams of comic frustration, screams of theatrical fear, screams of manufactured ecstasy, screams of the righteous artist at war with a corporate machine trying to grind him down. Such is the plight of Kim (Song Kang-ho), a director labelled as a peddler of pop "content" who, wounded for the last time by a table of smug film critics, rewrites the ending to his latest endlessly-replicable soaper and, swimming upstream, seeks to wring two extra days from a fickle cast under the nose of state regulators suspicious about the sudden change in direction in a state- approved and financed picture. Kim Jee-woon handles the meta, film-within-a-film conceit by shooting Director Kim's magnum opus in Universal Horror black-and-white while leaving his studio-bound escapades in vivid, drawing-room colour. The picture he's making looks to be a Hitchcockian thriller of some kind--a metaphor for the labyrinthine cobweb the truly inspired must navigate in order to realize their vision.
Self-aggrandizing? Naturally. But again, Kim Jee-woon is such an incredible filmmaker that what could be largely insufferable comes off as mostly good-natured. There are mad affairs and the tensions they inspire, impassioned speeches, moments of levity that mostly land--but, like its title, it's all weightless, at the mercy of the slightest breeze, and diaphanous. Look away, and you might not find it again. What's left in Cobweb is Kim's mastery of form. His camera is fluid and light, even when it shows camera angles in his embedded film that would be impossible to capture with the set-ups we've seen. Even when it becomes obvious that the flashy technique--the first-person mounts and whip-pans and so on--is meant to be the real star of the show. Mid-film, Director Kim has a long, dark teatime of the soul with his mentor, Shin Sang-ho (Jung Woo-sung), a phantom who materializes in his office after one of Kim's tantrums like the spectre of John Ford popping up in The Fabelmans to guide the fledgling Spielberg surrogate. Is this the other Kim's (as in Jee-woon) reckoning with his popular casting as the New Korean director who, unlike compatriots Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, did not break through entirely from pulp master to internationally-recognized auteur? If so, this puts him in the company of Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who, despite his accomplishments, often seems to be pining for the same popular embrace that's greeted his countrymen, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón.
Maybe that's the undercurrent driving Cobweb, not unlike the "undertaste" Rosemary Woodhouse detected in her laced dessert--a certain bitterness that sours what appears to want to be taken as a frothy trifle. The film feels a lot like Rian Johnson's Glass Onion in that despite its adept and easy way with a sprawling cast, elaborate set-pieces, and overlapping narrative, it's maybe ultimately an answer to a question that hasn't been asked. Can Kim Jee-woon make a film that is both superbly crafted and important? I think he already has: I Saw the Devil will possibly stand the test of time as the best encapsulation of the appeal of modern South Korean popular cinema. It's a serial-killer picture of unusual invention, at once a James Bond thriller and a John Wick actioner and still somehow, in the end, an affecting melodrama. Not to mention his A Tale of Two Sisters, which is among the scariest and most beautiful and grief-struck movies I've ever seen, and The Good the Bad the Weird, the finest Spaghetti Western since Leone. Kim makes incredible films, is what I'm saying, and he doesn't need to answer to critics who would put him in devalued boxes. Johnson loves his genre pictures, whereas Kim Jee-woon seems slightly embarrassed by his. Cobweb has edges on it that catch in the throat; it's a confection designed for consumption but laden with self-consciousness and even defensiveness. The irony may be that this film making the case for Kim as someone to be taken seriously, destined to be his most widely distributed picture outside of South Korea, is easily his worst.