“Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.”
Sir Walter Scott, author
There is no story more powerful than the one we tell ourselves. Are we the hero? The villain? Are we the main character or an NPC for someone else? How we view our own involvement in the trajectory of our lives defines every choice we make. Those plagued by imposter syndrome often push themselves harder than necessary out of fear that someone will “discover” that they don’t actually know what they’re doing, while those too ignorant to recognize their ignorance are apathetic to the determination of their inability. These stories we tell, often these lies, craft a web in which we trap ourselves, helpless to wriggle free, but not so immobile as to prevent our movement from entangling us further. To a degree, this encapsulates director Kim Jee-woon’s (I Saw the Devil/The Good, the Bad, the Weird) darkly comic new film, Cobweb (거미집), screening during Fantastic Fest 2023. Using a film-within-a film motif, Kim explores the depressive act of creation, the unity required to bring a vision to life, and the optimism that emerges from having created.
1970s South Korea and director Kim Ki-yeol (Sang Kang-ho) is plagued by nightmares. In them, scenes from his new project play out in different ways, reconfiguring key moments that shift the entirety of his script. Though the project has wrapped, filled with conviction, Kim determines that with just two additional days of shooting he can transform his finished film into a masterpiece that will erupt within Korean cinema. But two days means pulling together the talent and crew, learning new blocking and dialogue, not to mention getting approvals from both the studio head *and* the censors. With Kim at the helm and through the sheer might of his will, the film will get finished, but will any of it matter in the end?
Cinema is, at its core, deception. It’s using costumes, dialogue and movement, sound, and performance to create an illusion that audiences are intended to soak up. Even before diegetic and non-diegetic sound could be added, silent films were transportive, convincing audiences of the era of the danger, adventure, comedy, drama, and horror playing out before them. However, no matter what we, the audience, tell ourselves, it’s all a lie. But an incredible one because, today, we can embrace the lies anytime and virtually anywhere we like. Playing on this notion, Kim sections Cobweb into two distinct portions: a black-and-white and a colorized world. The black-and-white represents Cobweb the movie that Ki-yeol is directing, with us, the audience, observing the footage as if playing before us, and the colorized world represents the Cobweb that director Kim is making. This choice may seem strange at first, especially as we only receive portions of the in-film Cobweb in its completed form and learn about it via cast/crew reactions, yet, the decision to do so quickly becomes clear as we realize that Kim is using the two worlds as divergent-yet-parallel portions of the same story, each one an exploration of lies and truth with the film story possessing corollaries to reality.
The trick is that the lie is too often viewed as truth, so that any critical perspective on the lie is viewed as an attack on someone’s truth. In an early scene of Kim’s Cobweb, Ki-yeol goes out for breakfast and ends up eating at a place as film critics bash him for his past work and are ready to declare the new project “trash” before they’ve screened it. Understandably, Ki-yeol takes this personally, adding fuel to the fire burning within him already to figure out how to shoot for the extra two days. In a few scenes later on, Ki-yeol offers harsh words regarding critics which are meant directly for the men he spoke with earlier, but actually refers to everyone who doesn’t get his vision. It’s easy to be a critic, he suggests, because there’s no creation, only destruction. This is inarguably true for critics who do little more than rip apart a film, often gleefully so, with little exploration of the themes or the craft behind them. (Just because you don’t like a film doesn’t make it a bad film, but I digress.) However, these words of Ki-yeol’s also correlate to a larger idea that an inability to believe the lie, to allow one’s self to be taken in, is a weakness itself, one which Ki-yeol has begun to believe about himself, thereby making him spiral in his ponderance as to whether he’s ever made something of note, whether his new work will live up to his expectation, and whether he (and public perception) will ever believe that he is worthy of acclaim. Consider the fact that director Kim spends so much of the film giving the audience information via a false film: Is one any less real or engaging when we know that the whole thing is a nesting doll of a movie inside a movie with actor’s playing actors playing characters? Are we no less involved or engaged as the actors play characters with their own names? At what point does the lie become bigger than the truth and at what point is this a problem?
So the above presents the notion, ultimately, that the lie of cinema is good. How else are we to believe that supernatural forces can cause a young girl to projectile vomit or that a shark’s family will seek revenge for the death of a member of their shiver or that you’ll be dead by dawn? Cobweb does this while also exploring the negative side of the stories we harbor on a smaller level through Ki-yeol’s imposter syndrome. At first, his desire to change his film seems born out of a desire to make his film as strong as he can make it, yet, very quickly in the beginning, we learn that the public and his team all see him as a hack, incapable of crafting anything of value, not since his predecessor and former owner of the studio director Shin (Jung Woo-sung) died. Making Cobweb, making it to his (Ki-yeol’s) vision, is about hubris, is about opportunity, is about trying to free himself from the perception that he’s artistically barren, professionally lucky. If he can just make Cobweb work, then perhaps he’ll be seen as an auteur, an artist, and be able to finally step out on his own. Rather than just explore this plainly, the script by Shin Yeon shick (Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet) uses the in-film Cobweb as a meta-exploration of the interpersonal relationships that are playing out between Ki-yeol and the rest of the cast and crew. Though not explicitly stated, one can infer by the end that the dreams which inspired the changes to his film are his subconscious bleeding through as he comes to terms with his truth and how he arrived at this point. Put another way, he’s trying to find his way out of the web he’s woven around himself through the process of creation.
This may sound drab and dour, yet between the pacing of the script, the way in which the storylines converge and deviate before converging again, and the performances from the cast, there’s natural hilarity sown throughout. One image that’s particularly striking is Ki-yeol seeking solace in a fake church set, stepping into the middle section of a confessional where the religious leader sits, only to be interrupted by Mido (Jeon Yeo-been), the niece of director Shin and the supposed inheritor of the studio, who professes her love of his new script. This moment derives its comedy not from what the characters say or how they’re dressed or anything else that requires action or intention, but by the reversal of positioning combined with the falseness of the location. This setup is one of many which enables Kim to point out something about the characters without the use of exposition. Specifically, in this scene, Mido is to be his boss, yet she confesses to him, implying that power is different between the two. This becomes important as the film carries on, the two working together to keep the film going against all odds. Unsurprisingly, given his work in films like Joint Security Area (2000) and, more recently, Parasite (2019), Song deftly carries the weight of Kim’s burden, still managing to elicit laughter through vocal and physical delivery in scenes like the one described. Another aspect that plays to the overall tone is the background score from Mowg (Burning/I Saw the Devil): often spirited, jaunty in moments where characters might be experiencing distress, conveying a sensation of something being off or of low intensity despite the performance from the actor on-screen. The playfulness is a necessity to maintain its good humor for when the darker elements of humanity (of the psyche) come into play. Luckily, between the aforementioned staging, performance, music, and even Yang Jin-mo’s (Train to Busan/Okja/Parasite) editing, there’s a liveliness that permeates the film, even as it edges toward its dark-tinged conclusion.
Whether we realize it or not, we are spinning a web our whole lives. Sometimes it’s on purpose, a little harmless tale here and there to make it through the day. Other times, it’s subconscious, created by the insecurities that form from what we see and hear day-to-day. Some things Kim Jee-woon makes quite plain as it relates to his characters and whether their cobwebs are constructed of lies (making for bulkier, stickier webbing) or truths (easier to break free from), which doesn’t diminish the mystery preceding the reveal. Rather, it opens the door for new questions and new mysteries, all of which may just play out before us in another tale, perhaps not by Kim, but by someone else who picks up the mantle. Maybe even you.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantastic Fest 2023 Cobweb webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.