[25 July 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You can’t touch the lips in the first place,” Soon-ho explains to a group of young actors who mean to play blind characters. “You need to start with the body, touching randomly, so that you know where his lips are. You learn it that way.” Soon-ho smiles: she knows what she’s saying because of her experience looking after her blind-deaf husband: she’s watched him go through this process. She can also watch her listeners, as they lean toward her, eager to learn and understand. “If you know the person already,” she adds, “You find them easily, but for the stranger, you don’t know how tall he is. It doesn’t make sense when you go for his lips directly.”
As her listeners nod, realizing the truth she speaks, Soon-ho’s instruction gives way to another, that by her husband, the South Korean poet Cho Young-chan. He describes not how a blind person might act, but how it feels to be him. He has no explicit memories of sights or sounds. Rather, he says, “It’s like being surrounded by a thick fog. Nothing’s clear, I’m becoming very edgy. I’m deaf-blind even in my dream,” he says, “Because what I can’t see in reality, I can’t see them in my dream.” Here again, the students nod. But you know, as they must, that their experience is opposite of Young-chan’s. What they can’t see in reality, they can’t picture.
These two moments, so brief and so delicate, are among the most explanatory in Planet of Snail. For most of Yi Seung-Jun’s terrific documentary, you’re left to observe and guess, the camera extra tight on taut cheeks or mobile fingers (Soon-ho’s primary means of communication with Young-chan is to tap on his hands) or watching from a distance as the couple makes their way along snowy sidewalks. These sequences, so beautifully composed and perfectly timed, offer lyrical meditations on what it might mean to feel, to share, to devote yourself to someone else.
This last seems especially descriptive of Soon-ho’s experience. Living with a spinal deformity such that she stands under four feet tall, she attends to Young-chan’s every need, listening and cooking and describing whatever it is he needs to know. During an early scene in Planet of Snail, he emerges from bed to begin his calisthenics, locating himself near a wall as he trots in place. She watches as he teeters forward or back, heads him the right direction if he bumps a wall (“Gosh, where am I?” he wonders at one point, looking particularly turned around).
The scene is part antic, part tender, and leads directly to an example of how they work together in public, when Soon-ho accompanies him to a schoolroom where he completes an exam, alongside a collection of classmates, Soon-ho at his elbow. The camera hovers nearby while he bends over his brailler, until the teacher approaches to check his work. He’s earned an A+, the teacher tells him, for even though he’s misunderstood one question, she attributes that to an error by “your translator.” Soon-ho, the translator, beams.
In other scenes like this, Young-chan is positioned as the focus, the artist, the figure to whom the couple’s friends with disabilities look for guidance. Yet even as he speaks and she listens, as she’s literally small in the frame (when she stands on a stool in their kitchen to prepare dinner, he looms, over a foot taller), Soon-ho emerges as the movie’s bright source of energy, simultaneously independent and supportive, witty and resolute.
That’s not to say that Young-chan doesn’t take up more of emotional space or provide more plot in Planet of Snail. Several sequences feature his poetry (he reads in voice-over while you see his fingers on a keyboard or a moon in the night sky) and others show their friends rehearsing a play he’s written (“He’s never seen a play,” notes Soon-ho). The plot introduces a bit of tension when the couple visits a blind friend in the hospital after he’s fallen on the ice outside his home: they decide Young-chan needs to venture out on his own, to experience the world without his wife shielding and directing his every move.
Even as they embark on this change—monumental in their lives—the film keeps quiet. For a minute or so, they appear in separate places: as Young-chan makes his way through the school hallway with another guide, his cane tap-tapping the linoleum floor, Hoon-so stays home, watching TV and eating her lunch, but mostly waiting for his return. She meets him at the door of the van that drops him off. “How did it feel today?” she asks brightly. “It felt weird,” he sighs, “without my shadow friend.”
While you’re invited for most of the film to share in this sense of Soon-ho as a shadow friend, so sweet, so dedicated, so apparently selfless, a couple of moments are different. One occurs when they’re changing a light bulb, she directing him to reach up and feel the bulb, to remove it so she can read its make and number: when she leaves the apartment to purchase a replacement, the camera stays home with Young-chan, his face set, the room dark, until she returns and, literally, the light might come on.
A second scene is even more evocative, as they make their way through a park one sunny day: Young-chan touches trees and smells small cones, the camera following his hands. Then, Soon-ho sits with him, bestowing on him some more cones. He throws one at the camera. “Why did he do that?” asks the filmmaker from off-screen, the single moment in the movie when you’re made aware of his presence. “Because I told him to,” asserts Soon-ho. “It hit my face,” the filmmaker says. As Soon-ho and Young-chan laugh, you see them in a new way.