Planet of Snail: amusing, touching and life-affirming

Soon-ho: What are you doing?
Young-chan: I’m talking to the tree
Soon-ho: Is it fun?
Young-chan: We’re on a date
Soon-ho: Can I join in?

Young-chan and Soon-ho enjoy a three-way date with a tree
Young-chan and Soon-ho enjoy a three-way date with a tree

Soon-ho interrupts her husband who has been tenderly running his fingers over the trunk of a pine tree, feeling the contours of every crevice in the bark. The conversation, at once intimate and playful, seems to sum up the understanding between husband and wife.

The husband, Young-chan, both blind and deaf, is dependent on his wife, who has a spinal deformity and is below average height. They have an intimate, symbiotic relationship which, particularly for Young-chan, is essential.

Young-chan explains his predicament thus:

I am deaf and blind. Luckily, I was not born like this. I was able to learn to speak and remember what I have seen before I lost vision and hearing. Unlike many of my handicapped friends, I refuse to be satisfied with what life I have been given. I believe I must have a lot of potentials not discovered yet. My dream is to write a book that no one has ever written before: A snail’s encyclopaedia: the world through the eyes of a blind and deaf man

Soon-Ho is my wife. I haven’t actually seen her with my own eyes but I know she is the most beautiful woman in the world. She has become my lifeline ever since she came into my life. She is my arms and legs that take me to school, to the gym, to the sea and everywhere I want to go. She is the eye and the ear of me that sees, hears and translates for me. I cannot live a day without her and feel sorry for that I cannot do much for her while herself has spine disability and often gets sick.

I come from Planet of Snail where people communicate by touching each other. We call ourselves “snails” because we cannot hear or see and our lives are as slow as the snails. Now I live on earth where time runs so fast which makes me hard to follow the life of the earthmen. When I first came to the earth, I was desperate because there was nothing I could do. However, an angel came into my life and I discovered a beautiful world that I can read under my fingers. Everything around me started changing. Hopes started replacing despairs and I started challenging for my long delayed dream. Now my heart is full of hope and I know there will be so much more I can do in this world: The reason for my life.

The film captures well the struggle involved in getting by day to day as a deaf-blind person. As we meet the two central characters, Soon-ho is trying to get Young-chan to do some exercise in their government-subsidised flat: Young-chan needs to stay close to the wall as he exercises so that he doesn’t bump into things. It’s a simple enough scene but it speak volumes about the patience and endurance in their relationship.

Throughout the course of the film we wonder what a temptation it must have been for the documentary crew to intervene, to help the couple out in completing their daily tasks: the tortuous process of changing a circular fluorescent light bulb takes seemingly hours: only Young-chan can reach the light, but he has to rely on his sense of touch, and on tapped instructions from Soon-ho. It takes time – everything takes time on Planet of Snail – but the symbiotic relationship produces its results.

When we sit down to watch a documentary about disability, we might have certain expectations about how the film-maker is going to look down on the unfortunate subjects, or aim to engender feelings of pity of sympathy. That’s certainly the approach taken by Korean TV documentaries. It was for this reason that Young-chan and Soon-ho initially refused to take part in the documentary project. But eventually they agreed when they were persuaded that Yi Seung-jun shared their views about how a documentary should deal with the subject.

Young-chan and Soon-ho chat as they wander down the street
Young-chan and Soon-ho chat as they wander down the street

“I just wanted to follow them at their own pace,” said Director Yi in the Q&A after the screening at the ICA on 23 June 2012. The result is that, despite the crew getting so close to the characters, the overall results feel very natural. But at the same time some of the shots are very well-composed. As a freelance, Director Yi has to make TV documentaries to make money, but when making Planet of Snail he wanted the freedom to deal with the subject matter in his own way. In particular, he wanted to – and succeeded – give the documentary a cinematic feeling.

One unusual feature of the film is its sound design. “Korea is good at sound design for fiction,” said Director Yi, “but not for documentaries.” Thanks to funding received from the Finnish Film Foundation, the sound design was completed in Helsinki. “I gave the designers two keywords: ‘Astronaut’ and ‘Water’.”

The two keywords gave rise to the completely natural soundtrack for the film. The astronaut idea came from Young-chan himself: he is an astronaut from Planet of Snail, living in a spacesuit in which everything takes longer, in a bubble from which it is difficult to communicate; while water is the only environment in which he feels freedom – and the final scene in the film is of Young-chan swimming, filmed from under water.

Young-chan feeling the freedom of the sea - but still tethered for his own safety
Young-chan feeling the freedom of the sea – but still tethered for his own safety

In the stills for the film, we see Young-chan and Soon-ho walk along the street with both hands intertwined. It looks especially intimate, but it’s the only way that they can talk with each other: Soon-ho talks to Young-chan by tapping Braille characters on his fingers, while Young-chan, who went deaf after he learned to talk, is able to speak back to her normally.

Young-chan and Soon-ho have had to learn to communicate through finger Braille, which, as Director Yi informed us in the Q&A following the film, follows the same grammar as printed Braille: each character has 6 possible dots in the printed version, and in finger Braille three fingers of two hands are used to replicate the six dots.

Young-chan and Soon-ho chat silently together
Young-chan and Soon-ho chat silently together

One of the themes emerging from the documentary is that of loneliness. Young-chan and Soon-ho host a dinner in their apartment for other similarly disabled guests. One deaf-blind man, who had known Young-chan and Soon-ho for a long time, starts morosely telling Young-chan how envious he is: Young-chan has a friend and companion, whereas he has no-one.

When everything on Planet of Snail takes so much time, you might expect Young-chan to have limited hopes and aspirations, and maybe feel sorry for himself all the time. But such is the strength of his relationship with Soon-ho and his positive outlook on life that quite the opposite is the case. His voiceover which emerges at key moments of the soundtrack reveals him to have a poetic outlook on life, while his Hebrew lessons and his ambition to win an essay-writing contest and write a book shows his determination.

And between them they have an enormous sense of fun. After the three-way date with the pine tree, Soon-ho gets Young-chan to throw some pine cones – ever improving his aim until he manages to hit the director. Suddenly we hear the director’s voice: “Why did you do that?” It’s a refreshing moment when the director gets drawn into the story – the only time during the two-year filming project.

Amusing, touching and life-affirming, this documentary was a deserving winner of the award for the best feature-length documentary at the 24th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. As a measure of the film’s power and sensitivity, Soon-ho’s reaction on seeing it for the first time was a profound “Thank You” to the director.

Yi Seung-jun (이승준): Planet of Snail (달팽이의 별) 2011. SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Planet of Snail screened at the ICA 22 June – 28 June 2012

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