Director: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Song Kang-Ho, Lim Soo-jung, Oh Jung-Se, Jeon Yeo-Bin, Krystal Jung, Jung Woo-sung
Duration: 135 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
In the 2000s, the Korean film industry was undergoing a creative renaissance, so much so that its popularity abroad coined the term “Korean Wave”, referring to that particular period of filmmaking in the country. There were a trio of filmmakers at the forefront of the movement at the time: Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon. Everyone had a favorite of his, and for me it was Jee-woon’s work. A story of two sisters, A bittersweet life, The good, the bad, the weirdAND I have seen the devil they remain on my frequent revisit list even today, offering a certain visceral quality that seemingly few filmmakers could match.
Inevitably, the trio eventually ventured into Hollywood, ironically releasing their first English-language productions all in 2013. While Joon-ho and Chan-wook have kept their signature style and themes with the release of Snow puncher AND Stoker respectively, Jee-woon released what can best be described as a big-budget B action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Johnny Knoxville. the last Stand was far from the worst film to ever grace the screen, but many fans struggled to reconcile the fact that this was the follow-up to 2010’s Jee-woon I have seen the devil, me too. For the rest of 2010, you only directed a couple more feature films length productions, with 2016 underrated The Age of Shadowsand 2018 was poorly received Illang: The Wolf Brigade.
In the 5 years since Jee-woon directed a couple of short films, his most ambitious work was the 6-episode sci-fi thriller Doctor Brain from 2021 (made for the Apple TV+ streaming service), so seeing him return to feature film production in 2023 is a welcome prospect. Far from continuing the trend of big-budget action blockbusters he had become known for since 2008 The good, the bad, the weird, as his latest Jee-woon scales things back considerably. Returning to the comedy genre for the first time since his debut with 1998’s The Quiet Family and second feature The Dirty King in 2000, Spiderweb offers an opportunity to see Jee-woon again in the genre in which he has made his name.
His frequent collaborator and protagonist Song Kang-ho also returns. As an actor, Kang-ho has worked with all three great directors of the 2000s, but none more than he did with Jee-woon. Together the pair collaborated The Quiet Family, The Dirty King, The good, the bad, the weird, The Age of Shadowsand now Spiderweb, marking their fifth time together as director and star. In their latest Kang-ho plays a director in the early 70’s who once showed great promise with his debut but has since been repeatedly labeled a trashy director capable only of making racy drama. His latest melodrama is already in the bag, however when he has a fever dream (probably induced by his frequent pill popping) involving a different ending to the one that has already been filmed, he insists it must be re-filmed, convinced that filming they will make it a masterpiece.
Insisting that it only takes him 2 days to film the new scenes, what follows is a frantic 135 minutes as he weaves the cast together amidst their conflicting schedules (and conflicts between them), attempts to avoid the government censorship he has already rejected the full release and kept the filming a secret from the studio head. The setup may seem like a complete farce similar to the likes of Bowfinger AND A cut of the deadand while some of it is, the feeling that Spiderweb it’s Jee-woon’s homage to the 1970s era of Korean cinema that is felt much louder. The success with which he does so is probably his latest film’s greatest selling point, while also being the factor that will most likely alienate moviegoers who only know the post-1990 world of Korean cinema.
The result is essentially a chamber piece, with the entire narrative taking place inside the film studio and revolving around the cast and crew, making for a decidedly intimate affair compared to the epic scale we’ve grown accustomed to from a Kim Jee -woon production. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows the actors’ performances to really carry the narrative, and Jee-woon has assembled a mix of frequent collaborators and those he works with for the first time. The diverse cast of Kang-ho’s alleged masterpiece includes adulterous protagonist Oh Jung-se (Seoul atmosphere, The call), the stern protagonist Lim Soo-jung (…eng, Mothers), secretly pregnant starlet Jung Soo-jung (Hear my song, Man woman), and weary veteran Park Jung-soo (Take off, Seventeen).
In typical meta-style, the name of the film Kang-ho wants to shoot is Spiderweb, and Jee-woon playfully uses the film within a cinematic approach, sharing scenes shot in black and white with the audience that are re-shot once completed. Besides knowing that Kang-ho wants to re-film the ending as one continuous take, we as an audience are kept in the dark when it comes to how much needs to be re-shot and what exactly the new scenes are about which convinced him they will create a cinematic masterpiece. The relationship between the “reality” based events and the film they are making is effectively handled, with the actors perplexed as to why they are filming such changes, in contrast to the supportive production company heiress, who is at the same time equally convinced of the changes will open new cinematic paths.
It’s not just Kang-ho’s film that’s shot in a 1970s style, however, as even the scenes with the cast and crew seem to hark back to the era when the likes of Kim Ki-young, Lee Man-hee ( which is dubbed into the film itself) and Shin Sang-ok reigned supreme at the box office. From Sang-ho’s intentionally pompous storytelling, to the melodramatic relationships between the characters, including the obligatory scandalous affair. Of particular note is the aspect of censorship affecting manufacturing, which was especially prominent in the 1970s under dictator Park Jung-hee, banning anything that could be seen as a negative representation of the government. The scenario has comedic effect when the production gets a surprise visit from a government official, causing the expected chaos as they tease him with whisky, all in a desperate attempt to convince him they’re making an anti-communist masterpiece.
Special mention goes to Jung Woo-sung (who worked with Jee-woon on both The good, the bad, the weird AND Illang: The Wolf Brigade), who makes an amusing cameo as director Kang-ho previously worked, but tragically died in a fire while making his latest film. Having the opportunity to let loose a bit with portrayal of him, Woo-sung makes the most of his short screen time as a ghostly visitor to one of Kang-ho’s dreams, eagerly espousing the virtues of cinema to brighten the oppressed Kang-ho. An intriguing subplot is directly related to Woo-sung’s character, as Kang-ho has spent most of his career trying to convince his fellow directors that his successful debut came from his own script, not from his own script. he left one after his mentor’s death. . It would be a spoiler if he is finally able to get over feeling looked down upon by his peers, but the storyline gets a worthwhile arc.
However, there is no denying that 135 minutes Spiderweb goes on too long for a comedy, and those who are out of tune with or unfamiliar with the era it pays homage to may find the acting style and broad style overly excessive in a way that makes it difficult to connect . Indeed in many ways, with Spiderweb Jee-woon has made the most unique Korean film of his career, effectively creating a piece that seems to belong to another era. As a comedy, her hit to miss ratio is probably around 50/50, but as a cinematic love letter to a bygone era of Korean cinema, Spiderweb delivers a welcome dose of nostalgia from a director who, much like Song Kang-ho’s character in the film itself, certainly shouldn’t be written off just yet.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 6/10