For veteran Korean director Kim Ji-woon, his latest feature Cobweb was an exploration into the aesthetics and meaning of cinema. A satire about a film director who is convinced that a reshoot of his film’s ending could make it a masterpiece, the film delves into the beauty of cinema and the emotional journey of those who work behind the camera and in front of it.
“The pandemic got me thinking a lot about filmmaking,” Kim said at a special talk session held during the Busan International Film Festival on Saturday, where Cobweb‘s main actors, including Song Kang-ho (Parasite) and Im Soo-jeong (A Tale of Two Sisters) also participated. “Cobweb got me thinking a lot about the moments when I first fell in love with cinema and dreamt of filmmaking — which changed everything for me.”
The film, which originally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was released locally last week, has generated mixed reviews from critics and filmgoers – everything from it being masterfully satirical to pretentious and pointlessly vague. But Kim does not mind the ambiguous general reaction to the film.
“There are certain things in life that move me even though I can’t express why in logical terms – something strange and weird,” he said. Across a directing career that has swerved between a plethora of genres, Kim has been relentlessly exploratory, with works such as Bittersweet Life and A Tale of Two Sisters introducing entirely new aesthetic sensibilities to Korean cinema. “I think it’s a director’s role to capture those ambiguous moments and present them in a cinematic way,” he added.
Song Kang-ho, who plays the film’s male lead, a delusional artist, said he agrees.
“I act to become a weirder or stranger version of myself,” Song said. “To me, that is the absolute essence of creativity. When someone says, ‘it’s strange,’ that sounds like a compliment to me. It means it’s new and can’t be defined in ordinary terms,” he added.
Over the years, Kim and Song have collaborated repeatedly —for Kim’s highly praised debut film The Foul King to the kimchi western The Good, The Bad and The Weird and period action thriller The Age of Shadows.
“We’ve done five films together in the last 25 years,” Song said. “That probably means we won’t be seeing each other in the next five years,” he added, laughing.
“It’s a very special journey to be in a film by Kim. I always partake in that journey with a mix of excitement and fear,” Song said. “There’s always a new destination, which involves joy and pain.”
Since debuting in 2000 with The Foul King, a black comedy about a frustrated bank teller who turns into a professional wrestler, Kim has attracted a unique position in Korean cinema — as both an auteur and one of the highest-grossing directors in local box office history. Despite his depth of experience and reputation, Kim said he still finds the role of the director to be lonely and difficult.
“I always feel like a gambler who is betting everything on one game when I shoot a film,” he said. “In deciding and giving the okay sign, I feel like I am risking everything. The pressure to provide confidence to actors and always hide that fear sometimes feels very lonely.”
Like the film’s male protagonist, Kim said that he may have been a harsh director around his actors at times. In Cobweb, in particular, he said he wanted to capture the raw desires of artists and actors — and their reckless ambition to create a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.
“Audiences are often inspired by seeing the actors’ most dramatic emotions,” he said. “So on set, I wanted to see them push themselves to the very extreme.”
For Im Soo-jeong, who plays Min-ja, an ambitious female lead in the film, her part in Cobweb was a challenge and a stark contrast to her prior role as a quiet, schizophrenic teenager in Kim’s earlier horror film A Tale of Two Sisters.
“[That earlier character] never revealed her state of mind and that was where the mystery was coming from,” Im said. “The way Min-ja expressed her desires was explosive. In every scene where Min-ja performed, I had to come on the set with an intensive level of energy. And because Kim knew me so well, and every muscle and facial expression I would usually use in particular scenes, he helped me set a tone and bring out a new face in me.”
For Song, the male protagonist’s constant doubt about his talent was a reflection of his own insecurity as an actor.
“At one point he asks, ‘Do I really not have the talent?,’” Song said. “For me, putting talent aside, I always struggle in asking myself whether [my performance] is accurate and appropriate. I think a great scene and the essence of acting comes from that process of questioning.”
Overall, the film’s experiments with storytelling — a film within a film — and its visual style, which shuttles between color and black and white, pushed the boundaries of conventional cinema in Korea.
“I’ve said this before, but even as I get older, I want my films to be young,” Kim said. “Cobweb brought back many of those feelings.”