22nd Raindance Film Festival: In The Sands of Babylon Review

•September 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Raindance Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, has always had a strong legacy of showing independent films and uncovering talented filmmakers. This year’s festival brought various interesting films from all over the world, films you are unlikely to see elsewhere. The first one that caught my attention was Mohamed Al Daradji’s movie entitled In the Sands of Babylon. The director’s new production, partly a documentary and, to some degree, a fiction, uncovers the truth behind the 1991 Gulf War. The film also tells a story of those who managed to survive the horrible ordeal that was Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Mohamed is an ambitious director who isn’t afraid to tackle complex subjects. He mainly concentrates on Middle East affairs, particularly on his homeland which is Iraq. His 2010 film Son of Babylon, which he developed through the Sundance Institute, glued me to my seat. It wasn’t different this time either. In the Sands of Babylon mesmerized me as much as Son of Babylon. In this gripping and emotionally powerful film, Mohamed follows the path of three men who pulled through the Gulf War: a photographer, farmer and a former soldier. The director also conducts interviews with the survivors, asks complicated questions and unmasks the horrendous facts behind each man’s past. Parallel to the documentary there is a fictional story of Ibrahim, an Iraqi soldier who returned from Kuwait and is now trying to get back to his family.

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In 1991 Mohamed was just a teenager and didn’t really know what was happening at that time in Iraq. That’s why he decided to take on a journey in search for the truth. The only thing he remembered well, from that period, was the photograph of a woman holding a photo of her four missing sons whilst her other hand was lifted to the sky, as if she was praying to God. The director decides to meet the man responsible for taking the picture and carries out the interview with him. We learn that the photographer took various footage during the Uprising in Iraq. His old video tape exposes Saddam’s regime badly. His tales about the 1991 Iraq unveiled people’s suffering while being physically abused and imprisoned. It was very hard for me to comprehend the amount of people who died during the conflict and that, until now; there are hundreds of unidentified mass graves in Iraq. Jabar’s story, on the other hand, differs to the one of the photographer. It is more disturbing and terrifying. The man was involved in Uprising in the South. He said “We asked only for freedom but the regime attacked us, we had no choice but to retaliate (…) I was a revolutionist”. He paid a high price for his bravery; he was imprisoned, tortured and almost killed. I asked myself how much would I sacrifice in the name of freedom? Sadly I don’t have an answer to that yet. It was difficult for me to listen to Jabar’s story, nevertheless, I realised that what I have heard before about the conflict in Iraq, it was all from European media perspective and never from the Iraqi people themselves. The last interview that Mohamed conducted was as disturbing as the previous ones. I learnt that for us to get to the bottom of the truth we must allow ourselves to listen to those who suffer oppose to those who just observe.

The fictional story of Ibrahim was brilliantly combined within the documentary. It was a tearful tale of a man who was unlawfully imprisoned, tortured and killed for something he didn’t do. His persistence and strong personality helped others to go through a tough time in prison. Even when facing an execution, he still manages to tell a heart- warming story to his prison mate and ease his fear of dying. Just by watching Ibrahim’s story we realise that there were thousands like him who, in real life, lost their lives. The film not only reveals Iraqi people’s bravery but it also shows how determined they were to survive and to change the face of their country. Unfortunately over 100,000 people were executed as a result of the 1991 Uprising and buried in Southern Iraq in mass graves. This film definitely allowed me to look to the past and offered me the opportunity to understand Iraqi people’s past. I do believe that more films like In the Sands of Babylon ought to be made. This kind of story telling may open people’s mind to what is really happening in the world.

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Mohamed Al Daradji (Director) and Isabelle Stead (Producer)

Written by Maggie Gogler

Guest Editor: Jordan Murrey

We were lucky enough to interview the Producer of the film Isabelle Stead, the interview will be up soon.

Picture courtesy of the artist.

Japanese Animation Spotlight: Hal

•September 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Hal, Wit Studio’s first public project, is a clever and elegant depiction of grief, the nature of relationships, and the catharsis in moving on.  Set in a technologically advanced and yet anachronistic society, the film briefly introduces the audience to robot Q01 before we learn of an unexpected death that separates the titular character, Hal, from Kurumi, the girl he loves. Q01 is asked to step in by Kurumi’s distraught grandfather, and soon “Hal” is helping the withdrawn Kurumi return to society, the journey taking them both into an exploration of Hal’s relationship with Kurumi as “Hal” struggles to understand human nature and emotions.

It is perhaps natural for a viewer’s first impression of Hal to be one where the plot appears simplistic in its straightforwardness, a notion given further weight by the film’s running time of 60 minutes. It is the characters then, that hold the audience’s interest – Hal’s adapting to his new life being the progression that carries the audience through the beginning of the film before giving way to an exploration of Kurumi and Hal’s history, which, in juxtaposition with the development of “Hal” and Kurumi’s new relationship, gives necessary depth to the plot. The end of the film, however, is what perhaps stays most with the viewer, providing a twist that forces both a change in perspective and in the questions we want to ask. The appeal of the film, then, is a combination of all these elements, rendering what could have been a generic if entertaining film into so much more.

Wit Studio’s very first project was Attack on Titan, and while Hal differs from it in almost every aspect, both projects share a fluidity in animation and a richness in background detail that demonstrate this relationship. Mangaka Io Sakisaki’s endearing character design and the vivid colours of the film are further enticement for the audience, while also serving as visual cues for the atmosphere of each scene. Hal is also notable for being Ryoutarou Makihara’s directorial debut, with several interesting choices being crucial to preserving the twist in the plot, the progression of scenes and arbitrary dialogue allowing the audience to form misleading assumptions about what exactly they were watching take place. The visibility of Kurumi is perhaps one such decision, as she is, for the most part and especially at the beginning, a periphery part of even her own scenes, the audience seeing “Hal” or her interaction with objects rather than herself. Her actual appearances on screen therefore coincide with her opening up to “Hal”, especially once the story shifts to showing her and Hal’s past relationship, thereby allowing “Hal” and the audience to learn about her at the same time. Setting it all to Michiru Oshima’s music was the last touch needed to finalise the movie, underscoring each scene beautifully to reinforce the action and thoughts on screen.

Perhaps the biggest criticism that could be made of Hal is that the film’s short running time prevents further exploration of the society it’s set in, as well as the relationships the supporting characters had with Hal and Kurumi. Whilst I would have liked to have seen more expansion on these characters, the relationship between Hal and Kurumi is the heart of the story and remains the most compelling even while we wish we knew more about characters like Ryuu. Overall, Hal is a poignant film about love and loss and perhaps even about being human. Combined with excellent direction, a vibrant palette, and lovely music, it’s safe to say that Hal is a wonderful film.

Written by Roxy Simons.

The Fatal Encounter Review

•September 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

hyun bin king

I was slightly skeptical when Lee Jae-gyu (Beethoven Virus, The King 2 Hearts), mostly known for his TV work, decided to move into mainstream cinema. Lee’s feature debut, The Fatal Encounter, is based on one of many assassination attempts on King Jeong-jo, the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty that reigned over a unified Korean Peninsula for approximately 500 years. The film depicts the 24 hours in the King’s life leading up to the assassination attempt in 1777 and is set against a beautiful traditional Korean landscape.

King Jeong-jo (Hyun Bin), also known as the “King of Misfortune”, is living his life in a palace, surrounded by scholars, the Dowager Queen Jeong-sun (Han Ji-min), his mother (Kim Sung-ryung), and the devoted court servant Gap-soo (Jung Jae-young). On one hand, Jeong-jo is seen by some as a calm and considerate man, but on the other he is seen as a threat which must be eliminated. The King, who is aware of the danger, decides not to give up easily. The endless attempts on his life make him eager to stay alive and be a stronger person. Jeong- jo’s mother, Lady Hyegyeong, is also desperate to save her son’s life and does everything to do so. Nevertheless, with two powerful factions, the Noron and Soron, the chances of protecting the man equals null. Nor does it help that the Queen hails from the Noron faction and is behind the assassination attempt on King Jeong-jo, who personally supports Soron.

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Parallel to Jeong-jo’s story is that of Gap-soo and his childhood friend Eul-soo (Jo Jung-suk), a vicious killer sent on a mission to put the King to death. Both men met as children when abducted by the bloodthirsty man, Gwang-baek (Cho Jae-hyun), who, in a cruel way, trains the young boys to become barbarous slaughterers. The only support they receive is from one another. Through flashbacks, we learn that Gap-soo and Eul-soo are put to a test, one that might lead to the castration of one of the youngsters. Gap-soo, aware of the punishment, decides to fail it in favour of his friend. He is emasculated and sent to the palace to serve the King. However, behind all that, is the plan set up for Gap-soo. He must eliminate Jeong-jo when the right time comes. Years pass by and the King and servant slowly develop an unusual friendship. Gap-soo gradually starts to think that Jeong-jo is suitable to rule. Eaten by the guilt of planning the assassination, Gap-soo confesses the truth to him and swears to protect the King. A cat and mouse game begins. Who will die and who will survive?

The Fatal Encounter is definitely a great spectacle and an enjoyable historical costume drama. However, there was something missing in the film. I was watching the film thinking that I would see a story behind the assassination attempt of the King. What I saw was slightly different; countless flashbacks about Gap-soo’s life, the torture of the young boys and unnecessary fights which had nothing to do with the King’s story. I was also disappointed when it came to Kim Sung-ryung’s character as well as the Queen. It seems like their characters weren’t properly developed in the script. There was a lack of explanation about the Queen’s relationship with the King and his mother. Hyun Bin also had limited screen time, which is why I felt like Gap-soo was the main protagonist instead of the King. I am not sure if that’s what Lee Jae-gyu intended for us to see. The acting was sublime, and it goes to all of the actors. TV star Hyun Bin acquits himself marvelously in his first go at a period drama, grippingly convincing as Jeong-jo, while the role of Gap-soo creates an intense and unusual turn for Jung Jae-young, whom some of us might remember from Our Sunhi, which was shown at last year’s London Film Festival. Cho Jae-hyun’s portrayal of the wicked man was electrifying and terrifying at the same time. His performance was as good as the one in Kim Ki-duk’s film Moebius. I think he’s an actor who, like a chameleon, can fit himself easily in any type of a role.

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I must admit that most of the film is filled with populous and artfully staged palace attacks, conspiracy, and needless jumps in chronology. Nevertheless, the amazing cinematography by Go Nak-seon definitely added a positive note to the film along with the music composed by Mowg and the flawlessly edited slow motion fight scenes. You will not be bored while watching the film and it is definitely worth seeing it on the big screen. Unfortunately, The Fatal Encounter had a limited release outside of South Korea, and I am not aware of any screenings apart from those in the US, so there seems to be no further showings in Europe or the UK. Hopefully the film finds a distributor in the UK so that you can all enjoy the spectacle that is The Fatal Encounter.

Written by Maggie Gogler.

 

Japanese Animation Spotlight Series

•September 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Japanese animation, for the better part of two decades, has become a prominent feature in western society thanks especially to the works of Studio Ghibli, and in particular Hayao Miyazaki. Following Toshio Suzuki’s announcement of Studio Ghibli’s hiatus from film production on August 3rd the status of Japanese animation has been questioned by critics. However, while the powerhouse of Japanese animation may be gone temporarily, it does not mean that there aren’t other equally brilliant animators in Japan.

To show that this is the case, I shall be publishing a series of aritcles on various animators and animation companies in Japan, as well as conducting interviews with industry professionals. This spotlight series will help bring to light the many incredibly talented people of the animation industry that may have been overlooked to prove that the Japanese animation industry will continue to thrive without Studio Ghibli. I hope that you will all enjoy it!

Roxy Simons.

List of animators and animation companies:

Makoto Shinkai

Mamoru Hosoda

Satoshi Kon

Creative Intelligence Arts

Other artists TBA

In Conversation with the illustrator Jieun Kim

•September 8, 2014 • 1 Comment

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Seoul born artist Jieun Kim completed a Masters in Graphic Design in 2011 at the Chelsea College of Arts in University of the Arts London. After graduating, she started working under the name The Drawing Hand in London and has developed her visual style with various media. She has been able to engage her audience in many different ways such as giving talks, participating in art markets and guiding several art workshops in Seoul and London (source Mokspace Gallery).

“It’s so beautiful it makes me happy” one of Mokspace Gallery’s visitors commented, on Jieun’s recent work. Jieun’s Talk to me Darling illustrations are full of colours and positive energy. In her interviews she says that she is very much influenced by her own personal experiences, she also tries to reconstruct scenes from her life and transfer it into her latest work. Her most recent illustration exhibition took place at Mokspace Gallery in London, It was her second solo display at the gallery. We got a chance to chat with the artist while she was in London showing the art of The Drawing Hand.

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Photos courtesy of Maksim Kalanep

It was a beautiful and, unusually, sunny day in London when we headed to Mokspace Gallery to conduct the interview – it is described as “an exciting new gallery within the international art scene that is focused here in London, where East meets West. Principally it spotlights work from today’s most exciting, and booming, creative sources – Korea, China and Japan”. We were greeted by Jieun Kim who showed us around the gallery and introduced us to her new illustrations, which we found engaging and inspiring. We started off the interview by asking how it all began. Jieun, with a big smile on her face, said

I have been drawing since I was a child and I did my sketches wherever I go. I always keep a notebook with me in which I draw whatever I feel is worth drawing. I try to capture every moment of my life”.

She also added that her journey as an artist truly started when she came to London to study Graphic Design. It was a long process but she received a vast  amount of support from the people around her and those who were interested in her work. We were also curious to know about the process Jieun goes through when working on illustration, she told us that:

It all depends on a design or illustration. If I do commissioned work it all depends on a deadline. For commissioned work I always wait for my client’s request. After that I do extensive research and draw sketches, which are later shown to the client. If the person is satisfied with my design I then go through my work. With my own work the creative process looks slightly different. There is no deadline. I can research for as long as I need to. There is no fixed schedule, everything is up to me.”

It was interesting to hear that the artist likes to keep her work fresh and she likes it when her work progresses naturally:

I try to be versatile in my work. I want projects to be different from each other. Sometimes I paint, sometimes I work on graphic designs and from time to time ceramics. Nevertheless, I am still learning and trying new things. Generally I like to tell stories through my work.”

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Photo courtesy of Jack

It seems like Post-Impressionism, and in particular its bold colours and emotional honesty, had an impact on Jieun’s illustration work. She admitted to herself that she was always fascinated by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh and his incredible paintings:

I like to look at his work and search for what’s behind his work. I really admire the fact that he was a self taught artist and that he pushed himself for years before he became a great painter. It is amazing to know that Van Gogh did not begin painting until his late twenties, completing many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks.”

Jieun Kim always says that her work is positive and honest. When asked about her second solo illustration exhibition at Mokspace Gallery, she happily admitted that having a second display of her work at the gallery was very exciting. She is also grateful to everyone who helped her to achieve her dream. Jieun also gave great advice to those who want to become illustrators:

“Just keep drawing, painting and practice whenever you can. You need to find your own style, when you do that you can become an artist.”

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Photo courtesy of Maksim Kalanep

We were very excited to talk about Jieun’s inspirations, work and the creative process that’s behind her art. She has currently nothing in the pipeline. She admitted she has done a lot recently: two solo exhibitions in London and one in Korea. In a very humble way she said that she still feels like a beginner so she can’t figure it out what to do next. Jieun believes she will get another opportunity to show her work again:

As long as I paint and draw there will always be something to do.”

We do hope to see another one of Jieun Kim’s solo exhibitions soon. We wish her all the best on her return to Korea.

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Thank you Jackie Tatham for arranging the interview.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

•September 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the second instalment in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. The film, directed by Matt Reeves, follows on a decade after the events of the first film and finds Caesar and the apes in a secluded colony near the ruins of San Francisco. Having seen no humans in the two years preceding the film, the apes believe themselves to be alone and safe from the war and confusion created by the ALZ-113 virus. Their notion of security is shattered, however, when a group of humans stumble upon their home in search of a hydroelectric power source. Faced with the choice of protecting his home or ensuring peace by helping the humans, Caesar must decide how best to preserve the life he’s built.

One noticeable element in Dawn is the almost stratospheric advancement in both the use and quality of motion capture technology when compared to its predecessor. Weta Digital, the brains behind Gollum, was the company in charge of creating and developing the apes in the franchise. Already having set the bar high with Andy Serkis’s Caesar in Rise, they’ve now set it even higher in Dawn, with not only Caesar but a whole host of characters like Koba, Rocket, and Maurice. The detail that has gone into each and every scene is exquisite and is perhaps best illustrated by how the apes look and feel like real apes, despite being performed entirely by actors in motion capture suits. In an interview with Creative Bloq, Weta’s animation supervisor Dan Barrett discussed the extensive work carried out by the animators – pinpointing issues like the differences in bone structure between humans and apes, and what that meant in terms of the compromise needed to most effectively translate an actor’s movement and dialogue onto an ape’s face. This enhanced the cohesiveness of the characters and allowed the features of each actor to shine through the animated exterior. Another challenge Weta faced came with the introduction of different textures, such as the wet fur of the ape colony, and their success in overcoming the challenge of illustrating the effect of different elements was pivotal in creating the realistic visual experience that is this film.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Rise and Dawn is the sheer number of influential characters in the latter. While Rise focuses almost solely on Caesar, Dawn expands the roles of the other characters, allowing room for greater development to the point that it was Koba that stole the spotlight in Reeves’s production, a feat achieved as a result of the incredibly raw performance by Toby Kebbell. Serkis and Kebbell’s performances are responsible for an intensity between the characters that creates an almost Shakespearean dynamic, and as their characters grow and develop it is their conflict with themselves and each other that is the driving force of the film. Possibly one of the most unsung members of the cast, however, is Terry Notary, whose chameleon-like ability to embody different personalities is the essential backdrop needed to highlight the roles of the lead actors. Despite being part of the prominent moments in the film, the human characters remained incidental, functioning only as a stepping stone towards the creation of the planet of the apes, and while audience responses to the 1968 classic were mostly sympathetic towards the human cause, in Dawn their struggle was clearly secondary to the apes.

Of course no film is perfect, and although Dawn was intriguing and intense, the action was stereotypical for its genre and this detracted my enjoyment of the film. Moreover, the excellent structure of the film proved its own undoing as the earlier narrative and subtext combined with the progression of common tropes to make the outcome of the penultimate scene obvious to viewers. It is therefore to the film’s benefit that the importance of this scene lay not in the action but in the emotional turmoil faced by Caesar and the moral questions he, and the audience, were presented.

Matt Reeves’s take on the planet of the apes franchise was bold in its expansion of the setting for Dawn, made more realistic by Weta’s successful tackling of the challenges this posed. These factors, combined with stellar performances by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell meant that Dawn succeeded in amazing and intriguing the viewers. While there are events in the movie that are predictable, the importance of this issue is next to none when compared to the development of the protagonists and the moral questions raised that ensure that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a joy to watch. I am impatiently anticipating the next instalment in the franchise.

Written by Roxy Simons.

Moebius Review

•September 3, 2014 • 2 Comments

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Kim Ki-Duk’s movies, which are mainly disturbing by nature, are always appreciated by a small group of film fans. I was thrilled when his latest film entitled Moebius was finally screened at the UK’s cinemas, a year after its premiere at the 70th International Venice Film Festival.

The title itself stirred up a lot of controversy in the director’s native Korea. It took 3 long meetings with the Korea Media Rating Board (KMRB) before Moebius obtained the right classification, allowing regular distribution. At first the film received the most restrictive category, which in practice; meant that there was no possibility of any distribution in Korea because there are no cinemas in the country which are suitable to show the film. The commission’s main objection was the sexual scenes, which contained references to incest. Kim Ki-Duk agreed to cut 1 minute and 40 seconds of the film and then he cut an additional 50 seconds. However, before returning to the KMRB, the director organized a special screening at the Korean Film Council where he invited 109 film journalists. Guests, according to their own assessment, had to vote on whether Moebius should be released for distribution or not. 87% voted positively. After the third visit to the KMRB the film eventually gained the rights for distribution but with the highest age restriction: “Over 18″.

Moebius begins with short film sequences in which the director slowly introduces us to the protagonists of the tragedy. Its culmination is a physical struggle between a husband (Cho Jae-Hyun) and a wife (Lee Eun-Woo) caused by a phone call from the man’s mistress. The couple’s son (Seo Young-Joo), who witnesses the tension between the adults, doesn’t seem to understand what the cause of the quarrel is. Kim Ki-Duk had no intention of hiding anything. We all get to know, relatively quickly, who the father’s lover is when the son strolls through the streets and accidentally sees the couple. The story evolves quite quickly after that. The boy follows his father and ends up observing the pair’s intercourse in a car. The mother watches the husband’s unfaithfulness as well but from a different place. Upon returning to the house, the frustrated woman tries to chop off the husband’s genitals in the name of revenge. Unsuccessful in her crime she turns against her son, who she mutilates badly. The boy becomes a local sensation and a laughing stock among colleagues who humiliate him whenever they get the chance to do so. From this point the real drama of the dysfunctional family begins. This kind of introduction to the film, as well an interesting story development, heralds a good film for sure. It seems like everyone has their own role to play in the film. I can’t deny Kim Ki-Duk’s originality.

moebius father and son

Moebius has no dialogue, which in contemporary cinema is considerably rare. This proves that Kim Ki-Duk’s craftsmanship is great. I watched his film with bated breath. The silence, simplicity and modesty of the film coincide with what the director tried to show within the layer of a fictional story. Actors deprived of speech had to look for expressions elsewhere, which added a stranger and idyllic flavour to the film. The fight, sex or casual chatting scenes without dialogue told the audience much more than those in normal mainstream films. According to the old saying “Speech is silver, silence is gold”. Moebius, in this case, overflows with gold.

I was absolutely mesmerized by Seo Young-Joo’s performance. At the age of 16 he delivered very well considering it was his first non-dialogue movie. In one of the interviews Seo Young-Joo’s said “Although it was a bit difficult to act the role without a dialogue in Moebius, Kim Ki-Duk and other actors guided me well”. I think Kim Ki-Duk has got himself a new talent. I have to admit that I was affected by his emotional acting. It is worth mentioning that Seo has already showed off his talents in Juvenile Offender in 2011, for which he received an award at the 25th Tokyo International Film Festival. Lee Eun-Woo’s portrayal of the mother, enraged with jealousy over her husband’s affair, was electrifying. Her facial expressions and body language were as if she was a puppet guided by the director, it was an unforgettable performance. Obviously I cannot forget about Cho Jae-Hyun, who had already appeared in Kim Ki-Duk’s films such as Crocodile, The Isle and Bad Guy, for which he received rave reviews from the critics. It wasn’t any different this time either. His acting was sublime, it really blew my mind. Moebius was traumatizing, shocking and twisted but a great film if you look at it from the art cinema’s point of view. The movie certainly will not appeal to everyone, the audience might even think it’s repugnant, nevertheless, to me it was another great project from Kim Ki-Duk. I became infatuated with the film and Kim Ki-Duk’s work so effectively that the next day I decided to see Pieta again.

Andrew Chan of the Film Critics Circle of Australia wrote “To call Moebius daring is actually an understatement, as it is more than that, it is a film that will haunt you, lingers with you and perhaps disturb you till you never think about it again”. I couldn’t agreed more with Mr Chan.

moebius VenicePicture courtesy of the artist (Seo Young-Joo, Lee Eun-Woo and Kim Ki- Duk)

Written by Maggie Gogler

Guest Editor: Liz Evans