While a documentary about a deaf-blind man coping with life could very easily come from the miserabilist school of filmmaking, Yi Seung-jun’s Planet of Snail is very much the converse. The first image, of afflicted Young-Chan flying a kite, is telling, for despite his tragic condition, the joy on his face is unmistakable, and something many of us blessed with a full set of senses can aspire to.
The lack of narration makes his situation a little mystifying at first, and you might not even immediately realise that he is deaf, as his wife’s communication method – of tapping on his fingers like a keyboard – is so alien to anyone not in that position. She herself is beset by a painful spine condition, such that the two must make do, using their strengths and weaknesses in tandem to get through the day.
While the little-and-large pairing might initially seem vaguely amusing, it’s a very sweet match-up, with each reliant on the other, yet clearly also very much in love. Note the film’s most touching moment, as they team up to fit a new light in one of their rooms – she is too short, and he cannot see or hear, but together they work it out. The real sadness comes from Young-Chan’s friends, who do not benefit from having the same support system – or indeed, love – that he does. One lad’s bitterness is clear, though he is quickly reprised by Young-Chan, who is quick to note that he did not marry his wife simply for the assistance that she provides.
Most startling about observing Young-Chan’s life is his sizable ambition in light of his illness. Not only has he perfected an astounding level of tactile communication – conversing with his wife at near enough the same speed we might talk to one another – but he is also a talented sculptor and keen author. Young-Chan enters into an essay contest at one stage and does not win; he doesn’t let his affliction limit his scope, which is admirable. We see the disappointment in his eyes.
A tremendously affecting moment at the film’s close sees his written work – a play – acted out, but devastatingly, he can neither see nor hear the final product. He is demonstrated to be a remarkable human being, triumphing somewhat over his unfortunate setbacks. The insight provided into the quality of life of a deaf-blind person – probably much higher than you would ever expect – is astounding.
Yi Seung-jun’s grandest achievement though, is his acute engagement with the sensory experience of being deaf-blind. Young-Chan refers to it as “a thick fog”, explaining that his dreams also reflect the output of his waking life. Other senses, it seems, are heightened, particularly touch; when attending an actor’s reading, touching the actors’ hands communicates not just words but tone and feeling. Beautiful are his descriptions of the sensations we take for granted, such as the raindrops falling and bursting on our fingers.
Planet of Snail takes its central figure seriously as a person with something to contribute in the face of grand adversity. While also dealing with the inevitability of relying on someone who might not always be around, it also highlights the benefits of working with what you have rather than spending your life decrying it, a lesson many sensorily-equipped people have yet to learn.
Yi Seung-jun’s doc might be too minor and unassuming for some tastes, but it is a slight, touching tale of extraordinary human adaptability.
Planet of Snail is on limited release from Friday.