Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Editor’s Note: Planet of Snail is available via Netflix DVD service.
Part of the 2-becoming-1 processional act that is marital life is the presence of daily obstacles or tasks that a husband and wife partake in together. Often it’s a matter of divvying up the workload so that more is accomplished in a shorter amount of time; yet, sometimes, a particular task requires the couple to tactically become one cooperating pair. You know, like when a light bulb needs changed but is located on a high ceiling that requires one person standing awkwardly on a chair or ladder while the other holds the foundation steady. This sort of scene is both specifically present and also representative of nearly every scene in Yi Seung-jun’s documentary, Planet of Snail. Except, in the daily life of South Korean married couple Young-Chan and Soon-Ho, changing the light bulb on a ceiling of normal height is a task that requires special cooperation and a protracted amount of time. Young-Chan is deaf-blind, and his wife, Soon-Ho, is disabled. On their marital planet–the planet of snail–changing the light bulb requires the slowed-down art of tactile sensibility, of communicating by touch.
Discovering how Young-Chan and Soon-Ho change the light together is representative of the narrative shape that Yi’s documentary takes. The film is an opportunity to observe and celebrate how this extraordinary couple, in various ways, finds in their marriage the solace they need to endure their particular suffering. But by “endure,” I don’t mean something passive; rather, the documentary is about how they function as individuals in a daily, baseline way through the manner and shape of their marriage. In Planet of Snail, Yi unpacks for us both the plight of the deaf-blind, and how this couple’s marriage is a binding response to that plight. To Yi’s credit, this narrative of plight and response unfolds almost wholly through the powerful images of their being bound together, of the touches necessary for any form of communication.
The physical restrictions of Young-Chan’s deaf-blindness are immediately evident. He is almost wholly reliant on his sense of touch. So traveling from the living room to the bedroom becomes a trip fraught with potential dangers, one that, without a guide, requires a snail-like navigation. More subtle and perhaps more challenging, though, are the psychological challenges that deaf-blindess inflicts on Young-Chan. “All deaf-blind people have the heart of an astronaut,” Young-Chan says. “Being isolated without talking to anyone.” One of Young-Chan’s friends is also deaf-blind, but he is not married. In one scene, the friend communicates his envy of Young-Chan having “someone” in his wife. The conversation reveals the depths of which these two friends can commiserate with one another in their acute form of loneliness.
So it’s easy to get a sense for how the recurrent, comforting touch of another human being could become a form of salvation for a person who is deaf-blind. Young-Chan says that Soon-Ho first touched his heart by cooking for him the best noodles he’s ever had. And presumably not long after, “like a miracle,” he says, “we got married.” The sense that Planet of Snail sharply conveys is marriage-as-guide, or better perhaps, marriage-as-translation. And, as I mentioned earlier, this translation happens through a particular marital binding in which Soon-Ho becomes Young-Chan’s eyes and ears. Beyond the hopeful joy these two are able to have together, what most impressed me about Young-Chan and Soon-Ho is that, despite the need for a relationship qualified by dependence, they refused to make total dependence the definition of love in their relationship. By that I mean: we also get a glimpse at Soon-Ho encouraging Young-Chan to grow in the ways that can enable him to be more self-sustaining. Young-Chan recognizes that the sharp sensibilities he does have are losing their edge since marrying Soon-Ho, but some of the steps they take in their relationship suggests that they refuse to allow their marriage to become an ironically debilitating form of dependence. And this suggests a kind of genuineness about their love and support for one another; it’s a suggestion that in neither of these two is it ultimately a selfish motivation which drives their unique marital situation.
The way Yi frames the film works to enhance our experience of Young-Chan’s and Soon-Ho’s plight and response. First, he is careful not to overlook certain mundane happenings that really work to tell the story of their marriage. Outside, when Young-Chan wonders if it’s Spring, or in the midst of transportation when he wonders if they’re going through another tunnel–these kind of conversations emphasize the increased communication necessary to at least partly have a shared experience together, the kind of shared experience that we who have our sight and hearing can so easily take for granted. Further, there’s a few moments when Ji distorts our sense of sound; these choices are effective in their timing. For instance, when Young-Chan is feeling a tree and its leaves–allowing this sense of felt experience to wash over his imagination–Yi distorts the sound so as to have us identify with Young-Chan to the extent that our vision of how vital the touch of the tree is to him becomes sharpened. Likewise, Yi at certain points distorts our vision by zooming in for an extreme focus on particular things, like the electronic braille display machine, or the raindrops on a bannister–whatever is Young-Chan’s momentary focus. Yi consistently achieves the prospect of heightening or sharpening the viewer’s sensibilities in a way that attempts to emphasize Young-Chan’s experience.
During the first half of the film, Yi also regularly cuts away from inside the apartment and depicts a blustering snow outside the apartment. For these debilitated young people, it’s potentially a cold world out there where they’re not only likely to be perceived as outcasts, but Young-Chan by his own admission is like an astronaut in space even amongst people. Yet, I want to tell everyone I know to see this film because I think we have so much to learn from Young-Chan and Soon-Ho. They shouldn’t be society’s outcasts, but our teachers. The New Testament regularly uses sight and hearing as metaphors for spiritual vitality, and I can’t think of a film that more readily illustrates the truthfulness of the metaphor in all kinds of subtle ways. Young-Chan is a writer and even he, toward the end of the film, comments, “I’m closing my eyes for a while to see the most precious things. I’m closing my ears to hear the most beautiful sounds.” First, this couple is one of the finest illustrations I’ve seen of the Christian belief that often our suffering sharpens our spiritual senses in a way that works toward our good. I want to model my marriage after this couple’s–not in the particulars of course, but in the way that, due in part to their circumstances, they’ve become a beautiful image of covenant communion together. And, let’s face it: we need to see in Young-Chan and Soon-Ho’s marriage the snail-like qualities that are a metaphor, I think, for the Christian life. Like Young-Chan says, our sight and hearing often lead us into ego-centric excesses. We need to slow down, with our proverbial hand in front of us, allowing God to navigate. Without downplaying the real presence of their physical suffering, Young-Chan and Soon-Ho are, in a soulful sense, far less debilitated than many of us with healthy bodies.
Toward the end of the film, when Young-Chan returns to Soon-Ho after venturing out on his own for a bit, he says to her that it was weird without his “long-time shadow friend.” In a moment that recalls the scenes of blustering snow earlier in the film, Soon-Ho responds, “It felt much colder when I was walking alone.” Young-Chan called his marriage a miracle; when Soon-Ho is “typing” little communications on Young-Chan’s hands, I can’t think of a more insightful representation of that most miraculous happening: when those who are in the darkness and the silence are bound together with God.