‘Cobweb’ Review: Song Kang-ho Stars in Kim Jee-woon’s Frantic, Flimsy Moviemaking Meta-Farce

Director Kim Ki-yeol (Song Kang-ho) only needs two more days of reshoots to craft a new ending to his latest film, and it will no longer be the trashy potboiler everyone thought he was making. It will be, he declares frequently “A masterpiece!” Director Kim Jee-woon does not seem to harbor similar aspirations for his meta-movie “Cobweb” – his loosest, least substantial and most slapdash film in quite some time – though safe to say that the gulf between it and masterpiece status is a little wider than a two-day reshoot could possibly bridge. A film containing another film; a filmmaker referring to the trials of a filmmaker: it’s a movie of many layers, all of them garish and goofy, none of them great.

That’s an assessment that would no doubt cut Ki-yeol to the quick, because, as played with typically raffish charm by “Parasite”‘s Song Kang-ho, he certainly dreams of greatness, In the triple fake-out opening, quite literally. The black-and-white psych-thriller that plays initially – all thunderstorms, spiral staircases and checkered floors – is revealed to be a scene being filmed on a set, which is itself then revealed to be a dream. Kim wakes with start into his early 1970s reality, in which he is a jobbing journeyman genre director who has just turned in a final cut of his latest film for censor approval.

In pill-induced reveries, however, he has glimpsed a rewrite so potent it will bring him the acclaim he craves, the like of which he hasn’t received since his debut. All he needs is a couple more days of filming before his set is struck and the studio given over to another production. But how to get hard-nosed studio boss President Baek (Jang Young-nam), the sister of director Shin, Ki-yeol’s revered deceased mentor, to agree? Not to mention recalling his entire cast, including his favorite leading lady, Min-ja (Lim Soo-jung), philandering leading man Ho-se (Oh Jung-se), secretly pregnant ingenue Yu-rim (Jung Soo-jung) and pragmatic older veteran Madam Oh (Park Jung-soo). 

An ally appears in the unlikely form of Mido (Jeon Yeo-been), President Baek’s niece, who becomes such a fervent believer in Ki-yeol’s new vision that she vows to railroad the production by any means necessary, even threatening to oust her aunt from the stewardship of her dead father’s company. Meanwhile, a man from the censor’s office shows up to shut down production (there is some interesting stuff about this period of Korean filmmaking and the strictures placed on creative expression, but it largely gets lost in all the squawking), and needs to be kept distracted somehow. And tensions on set escalate when delicate, pregnant Yu-rim refuses overexert herself.

All the while we’re dipping back and forth between the increasingly soap operatic on-set shenanigans and the black-and-white of the fiction, with flashbacks and dream sequences and fire effects thrown in for good measure. This is far from DP Kim Ji-yong’s most distinguished work – that would be Park Chan-wook’s pristine “Decision to Leave” – but it may well be his most antic.

Farce is a difficult form to get a handle on, and critiques of its excesses are open to accusations of missing the point, of overthinking a genre that’s essentially designed to blow a raspberry at such pretension. Given Ki-yeol’s oft-voiced disdain for critics, or “people who can’t make art,” that may be one of the things that attracted Kim to the project, given the poor notices for his last film “Ilang: The Wolf Brigade.” But even working off a laxer, more unserious baseline, “Cobweb” is a disappointing entry, especially coming from a director who has previously done gonzo, freewheeling fun so well (“The Good, the Bad and the Weird”) and whose craft credentials have in the past been so impeccable.

Performances occupy one of two registers: shrill or zany. Aesthetics are mostly forgettable. And there’s a lack of rigor to how the film is assembled – including that irritating trope where scenes that are apparently only now being filmed play to us as edited sequences with score and sound effects in place – which makes it hard to believe the movie occupies the same filmography as extraordinarily elegant period spy caper “The Age of Shadows.” Where it should be intricate, it’s simply exhausting and long before the film has reached the last of its many endings (Ki-yeol wants to reshoot his movie’s finale, but if Kim were to do the same, we’d be forced to ask “Which one?”) “Cobweb” has run out of spin.

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