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‘Cobweb’ review: A humorous meta film in need of a bug fix

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Cobweb’ review: A humorous meta film in need of a bug fix

COBWEB. 'Parasite' actor Song Kang-ho takes center stage as Director Kim Yeol in the 2023 Korean black comedy-drama film 'Cobweb.'

Screenshot from Umbrella Entertainment's YouTube page

Song Kang-ho and Krystal Jung flex their comedic muscles in a serviceable romp about the chaotic world of the 1970s Korean film industry

This review contains minor spoilers.

MANILA, Philippines – It’s a shame that the last act of this film is the only part that truly enthralled me because its concept – a director trying to shoot an alternative ending to a film only to be met by chaos and censorship – is a truckload of fun.

Cobweb is set in 1970s Korea during a time of strict government censorship of the arts. The film follows a director, who is obsessed with reshooting the ending of his nearly completed film Cobweb. Kim wants to alter the ending to better fit his artistic vision but faces pushback from producers, actors, and censorship authorities. 

Song Kang-ho plays the troubled director Kim Yeol, who is characterized as someone facing massive impostor syndrome after never reaching the same heights of success as his first film. This urges him to reshoot his upcoming one. The goal? To completely transform the ending and effectively establish it as the crowning achievement of his career. 

He believes that his rewrite will finally turn the tide on his critics. Until now, they do not believe that Kim is a worthy successor to his directing mentor, who tragically died years prior. Of course, shooting for the rewrite is a different story as the entire film revolves around the chaos that is trying to get the cast and crew to work together toward a singular goal. 

The first problem is that the film never fills us in on the details as to what this rewrite is, perhaps as a ploy to keep on making the audience lean in and piece together the dots. Yet you have characters like Shin Mi-do (Jeon Yeo-been), a studio finance officer, who continually wax lyrical about this new rewrite, calling it one of the best stories she’s ever had the privilege of reading. I’d love to agree with her, but I can’t because we never really have a clear idea of what is motivating that burning passion and we’re just left to believe her words for it. 

I get it. You can’t have a character say, “This is the best script I’ve ever read” in the film and then reveal what that script is from the outset. It’s much cooler when there’s a little mystery, right? Eventually, they do show it, and it’s just okay. But imagine the power of having an insight into this mind-bogglingly inventive “revision” before the fact, as opposed to inexact allusions to the struggles of the cast and crew in comprehending Director Kim’s vision. We can then, as an audience, question if it’s really “good” or if it’s just plain garbage. 

It could also turn into a tension that can sustain the film. Will Director Kim be able to maintain his original vision given that we already know of it? This, in effect, highlights each change that the film undergoes that deviates from the initial rewrite, and it will break our hearts as much as it’ll break Director Kim’s when the story becomes almost unrecognizable. Moreover, if the revision is actually bad, we’re now on an emotional tightrope, waiting for an answer to the questions: When will someone tell him it’s actually bad? Will he actually pull it off and make the revision good through the magic of filmmaking?

But because we don’t know what the rewrite is or whether the cast and crew are genuinely competent or not, we don’t know if the director is compromising or sacrificing anything – and that reduces quite a bit of the tension that the audience can latch on to. In a film centered around the chaotic nature of collaboration, it seemed as though the characters were merely coerced into working together as we never truly discovered what motivates them to do so. They’re just hollow pawns in a chess piece.

Cobweb appears to introduce external conflicts and stakes, but they lack a lasting influence on the film; they’re essentially hurdles on the way to the predictable resolution. Speaking of stakes, there is supposedly a tight window of shooting for the rewrites, but it never really feels that tight. They say time is running out, but there’s never that feeling of impending doom that usually pushes actors and crew members to cut corners on quality.

The actors also do not stop complaining about how cheesy and melodramatic the reshoots are, but strangely, it doesn’t lead to any real conflict. They threaten to walk off the set, but those issues magically disappear through some rather shady tactics. The film turns into a constant game of bending the rules and outsmarting the Korean censors, which I found pretty intriguing but lacking.

But what’s even more absent is a genuine sense of consequences for all these antics. Once they find a solution, it’s like it never happened, and a whole new set of problems crops up; on to the next thing. It doesn’t feel organic. And when even the way things are going wrong feels staged and artificial, the foundation just crumbles right then and there. 

Always appreciative of a meta film, I, at least, adored how committed the film was in showcasing the nitty-gritty details of filmmaking and the complexities associated with film studio bureaucracy and government involvement. Seeing the delicate dance between filmmakers and the Korean censorship authorities in the ’70s retains a biting semblance of relatability even in the contemporary filmmaking landscape. 

The film is engaging enough to warrant quite a bit of laughs and a fun time in the movies. It’s serviceable, the type of film you’d watch on Amazon Prime Video and completely forget from your life a week later. Randomness becomes the film’s defining quirk, crafting broad scenarios that resist being too specific about its ideas, but it is empty randomness. We are treated to the comedic and tumultuous ride of predictability. As a result, I found it hard to get invested in any of the characters since there’s a sense of shallowness to their development.

This is all to say that I think my points of criticism don’t really work for the last act of this film, which is where I feel the story really gets going. Krystal Jung gets some moments to shine with some genuinely hilarious scenes, Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong gets more playful with his camera movements, and Song Kang-ho just eats up every moment he’s in. The climactic “set piece” will also keep any film enthusiast biting their nails, capturing the nerve-wracking process of orchestrating a prolonged single take. 

It was at that moment that I realized the final 20 minutes of the film could serve as a gripping standalone short film, completely separate from the initial monotony of boring setups and predictable payoffs in the first half. – Rappler.com

“Cobweb” is now showing in Philippine cinemas nationwide.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.