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Jeon Yeo-been interview: South Korean actor on why ‘Cobweb’ is a major turning point in her career

It is the early 70s in South Korea and director Kim (Song Kang-ho) wants to reshoot the end of his latest melodrama Cobweb. He wants it to be a masterpiece, and not a sloppy potboiler that people think it would be. Instead, he is caught in an interface between the censor authorities and the film’s crew, who are unable to understand the re-written end. Except for one woman, Mido (Jeon Yeo-been), a film producer who firmly believes in his vision and vows to railroad the production of the film.

This is the premise of Kim Jee-woon’s Cobweb, a dark comedy offering an indulgent glimpse into the world of filmmaking. The director (known for critically acclaimed films such as The Quiet Family, A Bittersweet Life and The Age of Shadows) had revealed that the film was born out of pessimism, as he pondered over his craft and what it meant to make movies.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Broker), Lim Soo Jung (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Jeon Yeo-been in pivotal roles, the film will premiere at the ongoing International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

In an exclusive interview with The Hindu from Seoul, actor Jeon Yeo-been calls Cobweb a turning point in her career. “I was curious about doing a film which explores the process of movie-making as well as even questions cinema itself.”

Recalling the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year, she says that the ten-minute standing ovation after the screening was a moment of intense passion for the cast and crew. “Director Kim Jee-woon possesses not only a discerning perspective, but also keeps an open mind when it comes to people, events, and objects. This attitude influences an actor positively,” says Yeo-been.

Describing her character Mido as a remarkable woman driven by her convictions, Yeo-been says she may have encountered a “cobweb” in how to portray Mido but was strongly drawn to her spirit. “She is a person who fearlessly stands by her beliefs. What captivated me was when the rest say a task is impossible, she knows how to make it possible. She not only holds on to her convictions, but delivers that sense onto others.”

Her straightforward energy matches the frustrated yet obsessive candour of Song Kang-ho’s Kim Ki Yeol. Sharing screen space with a cinematic legend, Yeo-been says, instilled courage in her. “Collaborating with amazing artists always brings a delightful sense of excitement and learning. He is such an inspiration.”

34-year-old Yeo-been rose to prominence for her portrayal of a high school girl accused of abetting suicide in After My Death (2018), which won her several acting nods. From playing a woman battling grief in Be Melodramatic, the pragmatic lawyer of Vincenzo, or her double role in A Time Called You, the actor is being hailed by critics for unfolding a new chapter on the portrayal of female characters in Korean cinema. “As an actor, my desire is simply to encounter stories and characters that make me curious and draw me in. It’s not about expressing a preference solely based on their actions being independent; their personality and behaviour are secondary reasons.”

Given her instinctive and uninhibited performances, she says there is no method to her craft, rather she is flexible when it comes to portraying any kind of character. She compares choosing projects to falling in love.

“I believe actors express themselves using their body, mind, and soul. What is important is to have a flexible mind that approaches characters and stories with an open heart, seeking to understand and come closer to the characters. When choosing a project, I pick the one which makes me fall in love. I like to experience films that touch the artist’s life, ask questions about love, or even portray roles that completely twist and turn things around,” she says.

Across Asia, Korean series and films continue to hold audiences, accounting for 50% of subscription-on-demand viewership and 42% of freemium viewership. With Korean titles maintaining the top ten spot across streaming platforms and breaking viewership records, Yeo-been answers thoughtfully, “I don’t believe that excellent films are only about breaking records in terms of numbers or securing top-ranking content. However, it’s a fact that in this era, there is an abundance of amazing films that can be enjoyed both qualitatively and quantitatively. It is a thriving time for me as an actor and contemplating what fundamentally constitutes good content with performances in films and dramas that I can be proud of.”

As Cobweb gears up for its Indian premiere, she admits to being a fan of Indian food and films. “I enjoyed Three Idiots a lot when I was a student. I also like curry with various types of Indian bread. I enjoy drinking chai, too. I would love to visit India given the chance.”