There are no big revelations or moments of high drama in the documentary Planet of Snail, only small, quotidian gestures, and shifts in routine. After following young Indian temple beggars in Children of God (09), filmmaker Yi Seung-jun takes as his subject an extraordinary married couple: Soon-Ho, who has a spinal disability that results in her extremely diminutive stature; and her deaf and blind husband, Young-Chan. The two communicate with the help of a touch-based sign language whereby she taps out words on his fingers and he responds by speaking. Their relationship is necessarily co-dependent, and Planet of Snail works best as a portrait of two individuals who suffered a cosmic despair before meeting and becoming the salve for the other’s suffering.
The film is nothing if not understated, humble in scope and form. Young-Chan receives closer attention than Soon-Ho, detailing not only the nature of his disability but also his ventures as a poet and playwright. We witness Young-Chan enter an essay contest and give direction at a rehearsal of a play he has written; in voiceover, he reads out his poetry. Though these creative pursuits are inspirational, every scene that pushes Young-Chan to the fore and shunts Soon-Ho to the side builds up an unsavory unbalance in the film, whereby her support feeds her partner’s endeavors without illuminating her own life.
By placing a structural emphasis on Young-Chan’s artistic ambition over Soon-Ho’s selfless and constant devotion, the director mistakes the heart of the film’s power as something other than a love story. The best moments are observational domestic snapshots that ignore any relevance to story arc: the couple teaming up to change a light bulb too high for her to reach, or Soon-Ho guiding Young-Chan’s hand above each dish at the dinner table so he knows what food is where. She is a gentle and adoring guide, caring for him out of his necessity and her sense of purpose, but mostly out of love.
Yi avoids talking heads and voiceover, a formal choice that never panders to the audience nor aggrandizes Young-Chan or Soon-Ho. He shows the couple’s routine not as a series of heroic acts as obstacles that are overcome, but as lives noteworthy because of their difference. Though the film wisely takes a low-key attitude through Yi’s effort not to sensationalize disability, the pointed calm relies a little too much on filler shots of Young-Chan reading Braille. Despite the compelling relationship at the heart of his film, Yi Seung-jun may have modeled the film’s pace a little too much on the mollusk of the title.