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HKAFF 2023: 'Cobweb' Untangles The Magic of Movie Making

Courtesy of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

At some point in many an auteur’s career, there seems to be an urge to make a film about filmmaking, often from the perspective of a director. This time around, prolific Korean director Kim Jee-woon turns his hand to this films-about-filmmaking sub-genre with his latest, Cobweb.

Frequent Kim collaborator Song Kang-ho plays our protagonist, director Kim Ki-yeol, who suddenly comes upon a burst of inspiration to re-shoot his latest film, the titular Cobweb, over the course of two days with the aim of turning the film into a masterpiece. Hurdles arise — from actor scheduling conflicts to dealing with the not unfounded concerns of the studio and the bureaucracies of state censorship. Nothing seems to faze Ki-yeol, though, who plunges headfirst into a mad, obsessive journey to craft this magnum opus that his collaborators struggle to make sense of.

Although ostensibly a character study of Ki-yeol from the outset, Kim soon branches off from this starting point to examine all the moving, chaotic parts of film production, which is where the film finds its success. Kim excels in letting the humour of scenes gradually build out through arguments between cast and crew, director and producers. When conflicts erupt, often due to people usurping the roles of others or questioning Ki-yeol’s increasingly ludicrous demands, it’s often hilarious.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the side gags, with a recurring bit involving a method actor detective sneaking around the set being a particular delight. The scattershot, episodic structure of Cobweb works well in favour of its humour and gags, but perhaps less so for conveying the personal journey at its core.

The film sometimes loses some of the dramatic pull of Ki-yeol’s determination to craft his directorial vision. It’s to the characteristically dependable Song’s credit that his sturdy, gruffly humorous performance can still make sense of the jumbled proceedings and ensure this arc is still coherent, if not as potent as it could be. And by the time the film crew starts putting its final touches on the grand, fiery climactic set piece that completes his vision, it’s hard not to be swept up in it all. Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong, another frequent collaborator of Kim’s and who shot Park Chan-wook’s gorgeous Decision to Leave, finds enthralling ways of capturing the chaos on set by emphasising the sheer scale and messy grandeur.

Outside of Song, there are several standouts in a uniformly solid ensemble. Im Soo-jung, Park Jung-soon, and Krystal Jung all play their varying comedic wavelengths as actresses struggling to make sense of their director’s chaotic vision effectively. Oh Jung-se as the irresponsible playboy leading man and Jeon Yeo-been as the niece of Chairman Baek, played by Jang Young-nam, Kim’s enabler and financier, overplay a few moments but also have some fantastic ones to balance it out.

It’s Jung Woo-sung, though, who stands out the most in a particular scene as Ki-yeol’s late mentor Director Shin. In this one sequence, he articulates the sheer madness of a director’s pursuit of perfection with comical precision but also a strangely moving conviction to the madness. There’s a greatness to this scene that the rest of Cobweb can’t quite attain, but overall stands as an enjoyable showcase of virtuoso filmmaking that just about carries its scattered ideas to a satisfying finish.


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