Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The lucky ones: "Planet of Snail"

Planet of Snail offers further proof that the key to any successful relationship is communication, however it is you go about it. This Korean documentary focuses on one of life's odd couples who somehow complement one another perfectly. Young-Chan is a man in his forties who lost his sight and hearing at an early age; his great love, muse and amanuensis of sorts, Soon-Ho, has a growth disorder that's left her half his size. Nevertheless, these two go together better than most couples you or I know. She guides his hands and movements, tapping out words and phrases onto his fingers, as though they were a keyboard; he's tall enough to lift her onto his shoulders whenever a lightbulb in their home needs changing. It would be surprising to find a review of Seung-Jin Yi's film that doesn't reach for the term "touching", because that's what this most tactile of relationships is really all about. Young-Chan and Soon-Ho have pushed and poked and prodded each other back into the real world, refusing to retreat into the state of isolation suggested by the title, and the documentary strives to show us some of the challenges the pair have collectively accomplished: hosting meals, taking a Hebrew exam (and passing with flying colours, by all accounts), and creating and overseeing a play performed by the differently abled on the experiences of the deaf and blind. (In an amazing demonstration of the heightened sensitivity of his fingertips, Young-Chan comes to recognise cast members by their hands alone.)

Yi's film is quietly observant, recognising that what these two people have is rare and remarkable enough not to require any formal trickery or dressing-up, though the soundtrack is annotated with extracts from Young-Chan's writing, which is eloquent indeed on the way he's come to see the world. (The subtitling, accordingly, is pure poetry, and Young-Chan's biographical statement - available to download here - is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read in the usually prosaic context of a press kit.) It's true that Soon-Ho's character comes through much less strongly - devotion is all we ever see or hear from her, where surely her own condition merits an equal care and attention - but Yi is content to make his points obliquely, as during the couple's visit to a single friend who's been taken to hospital after slipping on ice. (And we twig: if he'd found someone to steady him, he wouldn't now be in so much pain.) In doing so, the film refuses our pity, never allowing us to dwell on how unlucky its subjects have been as individuals by framing them together - at work, at play, in love. Calmly yet forcefully, Planet of Snail nudges us toward the realisation that Young-Chan and Soon-Ho are really the lucky ones, in that, when they most needed it, they found somebody to hold them.

Planet of Snail opens in selected cinemas - and will be available on demand here - from Friday. A Q&A with Seung-Jin Yi takes place at London's ICA this Saturday - details here.

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