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Year: 2011
South Korea/Finland/Japan
Language: Korean
Director: Yi Seungjun (이승준)
Genre: Documentary
Soundscore: Min Seong-ki
Sound Post Production: Äänipää
Sound designer/editor:
Sami Kiiski (S.Y.T.M.Ä) 
Cast: Young-chan (as himself), Soon-ho (as herself)
Runtime: 87 min.
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Planet of Snail websitePlanet of Snail page of UK distributor Dogwoof.

Seen at a special screening at the ICA that included a Q&A with Yi Seungjun. There are two more screenings scheduled this week (June 27 and 28).

We call ourselves ‘snails’ because we cannot hear or see and our lives are as slow as the snails. Now I live on earth where time runs so fast which makes [it] hard to follow the life of the earthmen.

The words of Young-chan, a young, deaf-blind man whose every day life is at the heart of Yi Seungjun’s award-winning documentary 달팽이의 별 (Dalpaengieui Byeol/Planet of Snail), echo poetically as he describes himself, his wife Soon-ho and their also disabled friends but don’t feel quite true. Although their lives may proceed at a different pace, ‘slow’ is not the word I would use for them. Not only do Young-chan and Soon-ho move along quite swiftly in the documentary’s opening shots – much more so than the snail analogy would have suggested – but there was a moment much later in Dalpaengieui Byeol that made me wonder, how does this really differ from the lives of ‘ordinary’ people? In this scene we see Young-chan standing by the open window, his hands held out to the rain. As he catches the drops of rain, he feels them, “soft” and “smooth”. It is a picture that could invoke all kinds of negative and hurtful prejudices, a disabled man, dumbly placed there, childishly catching water. It does not take much imagination to envision what, say, high school bullies would make of such a scene, yet how is reading raindrops with your hands really so different from listening to music? It involves, just as much, processing through one of our senses, offering – to the capable -, just as much enjoyment. That most of us cannot share the experience as water is nothing more than ‘wet’ or ‘cold’ to the average person is immaterial.

Tree-hug 1: Inner tranquility.

In another scene, Young-chan hugs a tree. He likes hugging trees, says Soon-ho, the wife. But it is not just that he is hugging trees, what he does is more than that. Although it is impossible for us to fully participate in Young-chan’s experience of the arboreal world, Yi Seungjun’s film conveys at least a sense of it: the mundane noises of the place (a park in Seoul, with people about) are muted, a different sound – of Young-chan’s inner world – takes over. We may be merely watching a screen, but a tree has never quite felt like this before.

That we can join in Young-chan’s tree (and other) moments is in part thanks to the skilfully composed soundscore. With the documentary having been internationally funded, its music is by the Korean Min Seongki but sound design and editing was done in Finland. In the Q&A Yi Seungjun explained that rather than detailed instructions he gave the sound designer two keywords: astronaut and water. The words were not chosen at random, but intimately relate to defining aspects of Young-chan’s reality. Astronaut reflects the young man’s self-perception as a being afloat alone in space, which is dark and silent, and distant from the human earth. Water, meanwhile, is Young-chan’s only place of freedom. Though he still needs a rope tied around his foot, in water he can move like nowhere else – with no fear of crashing into anyone or anything, with the same speed as any person – and dive deep into life. Whether the lonely sound of space or liberating music of water, Dalpaengieui Byeol’s score pulls us with Young-chan. We feel the heavy silence that descends when he separates from Soon-ho for a day so that he may learn to live more independently (behind the closed cab door, the couple physically apart for once, Young-chan’s world is instantly soundless), equally we partake in the blissful laughter that resonates when he includes Soon-ho in his tree hug.

Tree-hug 2: Laughter and love.

The soundscore is one of the few tools employed by Yi Seungjun, who prefers to wield a light hand in his directing. It is the voice of Young-chan’s poetry (he is an aspiring writer) and the camera that speak, as add-ons such as explanations and other commentary are entirely omitted from Dalpaengeui Byeol. While this means that there are facts and details that viewers never learn – Soon-ho’s backstory, for example, remains a mystery -, it is by giving us not what others think about Young-chan, his wife and friends but how they themselves live that we enter more deeply into their world. The director even leaves in an amusing, fourth-wall breaking scene, in which Young-chan unexpectedly interacts with the man behind the camera. Unlike the staged and often awkwardly static interviews that appear in some documentaries, this is a tiny, impromptu moment that reveals more about Young-chan than even a whole list of facts would have.

Yi Seungjun may initially have started out with an interesting subject – he had read about a special trip a physically disabled couple made to Japan – but making the documentary over a period of two years, led him, and ultimately us, to discover something else: two very unique individuals in a wonderfully symbiotic relationship, in tune with one another like few couples are. The woman with a spinal disability and the deaf-blind man become the selfless, amazingly energetic and always smiling Soon-ho and unusually perceptive Young-chan, who clearly has something about him that mesmerises from the moment you first meet him, in person or on screen. It’s a real-life story full of joy and sadness that you cannot help but cheer for.

Overall Verdict: There are many more words I could say about Dalpaengieui Byeol and many more enlightening scenes I could describe, but this would deprive you from the delight and surprise of entering Young-chan, Soon-ho and their friends’ world reel by reel. Just watch and be moved.

Rating: 8.5/10

Postscript (for Genkina Hito especially):  The scene that touched me the most?  Although I can’t say why exactly, when Young-chan meets with a theatre group putting on a performance on a deaf-blind character and teaches them how to portray such a person convincingly, tears welled up.

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Bonus Bits:

Future Screenings:

  • New York: July 25-August 7, 2012 at the Film Forum.
  • Japan: A theatrical release is planned for the summer of 2012.

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