An unadorned, unsentimental portrait of a marriage, Yi Seung-jun’s documentary Planet of Snail celebrates the daily life of an exceptionally collaborative couple. Young-chan is deaf and blind; his wife, Soon-ho, possesses all five senses but is afflicted with a spinal disorder that has stunted her growth. The top of her head comes to just below her beanpole spouse’s heart; the physical proximity of these two body parts aptly suggests their insoluble emotional connection.
Much of Planet of Snail takes place inside Young-chan and Soon-ho’s spotless Seoul apartment, where replacing an overhead lightbulb becomes a tense set piece of intricate teamwork, the height-challenged woman gently instructing her husband as he installs the ring-shaped fixture. Although Young-chan can speak—he lost his sight and hearing as a child—Soon-ho communicates with him primarily through finger Braille: She taps words onto his hand, and he responds verbally. (Yi first came across Young-chan in 2008 while making a science documentary on the human finger.) Young-chan’s soft, jubilant cry—”Yes, we did it”—after Soon-ho flips the switch with success could be the unassuming duo’s motto.
Their home is also an active hub of floor exercises (we get our first glimpse of Young-chan’s sense of humor after he loses his balance while stretching and running in place in the living room), literary output (Young-chan is a poet and essayist), and bustling dinner parties (Soon-ho cooks; he dries the dishes). It’s at one of these social gatherings that a rare raw exchange punctures the tranquility. “You have no idea how much I envy seeing you two together,” says a disabled friend of Young-chan’s who was influential in introducing the couple. (Because Planet of Snail forgoes intertitles and voiceover, what little we learn of their initial courtship is gleaned during this supper.) Preempting his pal’s unspoken accusation, a vexed Young-chan asks, “You think I married to have a lifelong free helper?”
The buddies resolve their dustup quickly, but these flashes of pique helpfully make the central couple seem more human and less saintly, even if squabbles between Young-chan and Soon-ho—surely they must have them?—remain unseen. Missing, too, is biographical information on Soon-ho; though Planet of Snail details the couple’s joint efforts to accomplish even the smallest task, the film revolves much more around Young-chan than the woman he tenderly refers to as “my longtime shadow friend.”
To become better able to navigate the outside world, unaccompanied by his “shadow friend,” Young-chan spends a day in a facility learning how to get around solo with a white cane while Soon-ho anxiously awaits his return to the apartment. Her mild anguish over their brief separation hints at her larger worry over what will happen to him when he is left alone for good: “It seems we should die together,” she suggests calmly as the ideal situation.
And yet Young-chan and Soon-ho are two people very much alive, as their delightful outdoor excursions prove. They toboggan in the winter, swim in the summer, and seem happiest when walking through the woods close to home. Young-chan approaches a tree, sniffs, and then hugs it; when Soon-ho interrupts his chaste dendrophilia, he jokes, “We’re dating now—don’t bother us,” mischievousness soon followed by a pinecone assault on Yi, guided by his wife’s directions.
His private commune with the timber—and Soon-ho’s pleasure in observing this intimate moment—is just one of their blissful shared rituals. “What I can’t see in reality, I can’t see in my dreams,” Young-chan tells a group of actors who have solicited his advice on how a deaf-blind person moves for a production they’re mounting. What he can always sense all around him, though, whether awake or sleeping, is love.