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‘Planet of Snail’ touching in many ways

IDFA-winning documentary delves into human connection to the universe

Of all our senses, the sense of touch arguably is the most intimate.

It develops before all the other senses, and it’s one of the first ways in which children learn about their environment and bond with others. It brings pleasure, protection and emotional support. Even after our sight weakens and hearing fades, this sense usually stays with us.

Director Yi Seung-jun’s award-winning documentary, “Planet of Snail,” is an exquisite cinematic account of a man, who relies almost completely on his sense of touch, and his wife. The movie, which won the top prize at the world’s largest documentary film festival in the Netherlands last year, paints a poetic and philosophical portrait of a couple with disabilities.

Young-chan, the husband, started losing his sight and hearing after a childhood illness. His wife Soon-ho, seriously injured her spine when she was little. Because of problems with her spine, Soon-ho is only as tall as Young-chan’s waist. 
A scene from director Yi Seung-jun’s documentary “Planet of Snail.” (All That Cinema)
A scene from director Yi Seung-jun’s documentary “Planet of Snail.” (All That Cinema)

The movie simply follows their everyday lives, as they read, walk, dine and giggle together. There are no dramatic moments. Instead, Yi focuses on what Young-chan touches with his hands. The poetic imagery shines when Young-chan touches the leaf of the tree, brushes raindrops on a window pane with his fingertips, and gently strokes his wife’s face.

Ten countries helped make this film. It received grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach Grant from the U.S., the Finnish Film Foundation, and Korea’s Broadcasting Content Promotion Foundation and EIDF Documentary Fund. Japan’s NHK and Finland’s Vaski Filmi participated in its production. It was edited by Lebanese editor Simon El Habre, while Sami Kiiski from Finland produced the sound, a stand-out feature throughout the film.

Yi and Kiiski together decided to use “water and the universe” as the inspiration for the films sound production, which helps viewers to feel what it is like to live Young-chan’s life.

The aspiring poet often writes about the universe and his sense of connection to it, as he describes having his hearing disability as “being an astronaut who is alone in space.” He also feels liberated once he is in water.

“I’ve never seen a star in my life,” he writes in the movie. “But there has never been a moment when I didn’t believe in its existence.”

The sound created by Kiiski depicts Young-chan’s utter sense of isolation, but also his appreciation of beauty of the nature and his surroundings. Listening to the distant sound of water, you could be on a ship at sea or a submarine at the bottom of the ocean. These sounds constantly overlap with images of the couple and their shared daily routines, offering a moving, almost spiritual cinematic experience.

Because Young-chan cannot hear while he can speak, Soon-ho talks to him by gently tapping the Braille letters onto his 10 fingers. It looks almost as if she’s playing a piano. Whenever she tells him something using her fingers, Soon-ho recites what she’s tapping in her tranquil voice. She speaks slowly, as she follows the speed of her fingers. He cannot hear her voice, nor can he see her lips moving, but one can certainly feel the sense of connection shared between the two.

“Planet of Snail” goes beyond ― or purposely avoids ― disability-related rhetoric. It does not deal with the couple’s financial problems, nor does it examine other limitations they may face with their disabilities.

Instead it focuses on what most people may be missing out amid the constant noise and busy, visually-oriented contemporary world ― as well as the universal human connection with the universe and, more importantly, with each other. Yi, who majored in Asian History in university, pulls it off by exploring the couple’s “language of touch,” with much philosophy and introspection.

“Planet of Snail” opens in theaters March 22. It will also be available in a “barrier-free” version, which will be accompanied by a descriptive audio feature and subtitles that narrate each and every action of the film. The special version will cater to people with hearing or visual impairments.

Veteran rock singer and actor Kim Chang-wan provides the narration.

By Claire Lee (
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Korea Herald daum