His latest feature film for the experienced Korean director Kim Ji-woon Spider web was an exploration of the aesthetics and meaning of cinema. A satire about a film director who is convinced that a new recording of the ending of his film could make it a masterpiece. The film delves into the beauty of cinema and the emotional journey of those who work behind and in front of the camera.
“The pandemic has made me think a lot about filmmaking,” Kim said Saturday during a special talk at the Busan International Film Festival, where Spider web‘s main actors, including Song Kang-ho (Parasite) and I’m Soo-jeong (A story of two sisters) also participated. “Spider web made me think a lot about the moments when I first fell in love with cinema and dreamed 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 alike – everything from masterfully satirical to pretentious and pointlessly vague. But Kim doesn’t mind the ambiguous general reaction to the film.
“There are certain things in life that move me, even if I can’t put into logical terms why – something strange and weird,” he said. Throughout her career as a director that has oscillated between a plethora of genres, Kim has been relentlessly exploratory, with works such as Bittersweet life And A story of two sisters introducing entirely new aesthetic sensibilities to Korean cinema. “I think the role of a director is to capture those ambiguous moments and present them in a cinematic way,” he added.
Song Kang-ho, who plays the male lead, a delusional artist, said he agreed.
“I act to become a stranger or weirder version of myself,” Song said. “For me that is the absolute essence of creativity. When someone says, “It’s strange,” I take that as a compliment. It means it is new and cannot be defined in ordinary terms,” he added.
Over the years, Kim and Song have worked together repeatedly – for Kim’s critically acclaimed debut film The dirty king to the kimchi western The good, the bad and the strange and historical action thriller The Age of Shadows.
“We have made five films together in the past 25 years,” Song said. “That probably means we won’t see each other again for the next five years,” he added with a laugh.
“It is a very special journey to star in a Kim film. I always participate in that journey with a mix of excitement and fear,” Song said. “There is always a new destination, which brings joy and pain.”
Since his debut in 2000 with The dirty king, a black comedy about a frustrated bank teller who turns into a professional wrestler, Kim has carved out a unique position in Korean cinema – as an author and as one of the highest-grossing directors in local box office history. Despite his vast experience and reputation, Kim says he still finds the role of director lonely and difficult.
“I always feel like a gambler betting everything on one game when I shoot a movie,” he said. “By deciding and giving the ‘OK’ sign, I feel like I’m risking everything. The pressure to give actors confidence and always hide that fear sometimes feels very lonely.”
Like the film’s male lead, Kim said he was sometimes a harsh director around his actors. In Spider webIn 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 pushing themselves to the limit.”
For Im Soo-jeong, who plays Min-ja, an ambitious female lead in the film, her role is in Spider web was a challenge and a stark contrast to her previous role as a quiet, schizophrenic teenager in Kim’s previous horror film A story of two sisters.
“(That previous character) never revealed her state of mind and that was where the mystery came from,” Im said. “The way Min-ja expressed her desires was explosive. In every scene in which Min-ja performed, I had to show up on set with an intense level of energy. And because Kim knew me so well, and every muscle and facial expression I normally used in certain scenes, he helped me set the 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, talent aside, I always struggle to ask myself if (my performance) is accurate and appropriate. I think a great scene and the essence of acting comes from that process of asking questions.”
Overall, the film’s experiments with storytelling – a film within a film – and its visual style, which oscillates 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 stay young,” Kim said. “Spider web brought back a lot of those feelings.”