With Cobweb, South Korean genre stalwart Kim Jee-woon falls back on that old piece of received wisdom: “movie people, ain’t they crazy?” When in self-satirizing mode, it’s uncanny how often filmmakers will depict their industry and their working environment as a barely held-together farrago; if this were accurate, how many movies would actually be completed? But also premiering at Cannes this May was Sean Price Williams and Nick Pinkerton’s The Sweet East, which reversed this trend slightly by portraying its two filmmaker characters, played by Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri, as eerily perfect professionals not lacking for sharky opportunism. 

Very much associated with the first wave of post-millennial South Korean cinema that made global inroads, Kim (known for twisty shockers like A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil) intends Cobweb as both a film allowing him to take stock and memorialize his lucrative career while also making a case for himself to doubters––a tableful of snide film critics at a café feature in the opening moments, dismissed by Song Kang-ho’s lead, also called Kim, as “people who can’t make art.” Kim is a jobbing director in 1970s Seoul, then under a military dictatorship, for the Shinseong Film studio, established by his illustrious mentor Shin Seong-ho and now run by his descendants, as per national tradition for large businesses. 

In lieu of actually making a “masterpiece,” there’s something touching and endearing about Cobweb  fixating on Kim (whichever one, we could say) dedicating a film to the madness-inducing pursuit of such greatness. (Not for nothing it’s set exclusively in interiors of the studio’s soundstages, not dissimilar to the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!) Kim has persuaded its upper brass to reshoot the final sequence of his latest thriller, convinced that a few tweaks to form and content could make a “masterpiece” that would salvage his reputation as Shin’s eternal lackey, and put one to that gaggle of pesky critics. 

Shot in high-contrast but very artificial-looking black-and-white, with little sense of subtle shading and texture, Kim’s film-within-a-film is conveniently about another corporate succession––this time of a garment factory where an affair between the boss (Oh Jung-se) and a production-line worker (Jung Soo-jung) will wrest its future in a new direction. Conflict arrives from two sources: through attempting to placate the censors’ office by dubiously framing the new storyline as anti-communist propaganda, and Kim’s attempts to rally the cast and technicians through pyrotechnic effects and what he proudly calls a plan-de-séquence, enforcing new camera choreography that amounts to a last-gasp chance at artistic depth. 

Whereas I Saw the Devil was relentlessly violent and mean-spirited, Cobweb has a softer heart, and fixates on sloppier ensemble staging and to-the-hilt acting performances to the detriment of Kim’s considerable skills with the camera, and his ability to manipulate audience attention in a quasi-Hitchcockian manner. In his particular genre-oriented space, where Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have risen to further laurels and prestige, Kim appears to be self-consciously musing on this, and if it leaves something to be desired in comparison to his last historical fiction The Age of Shadows as an interrogation of South Korea’s troubled past, there’s enough liveliness and cattiness to compensate. And surely we culminate with the sort of giddy, late-film change of genre that has so rewardingly defined cinema from this region. 

Cobweb premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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