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Review: 'Planet of Snail' is a real-life look at a unique couple

The documentary from director Seungjun Yi winningly details the lives of Young-Chan, who is deaf and blind, and wife Soon-Ho, who has a spinal impediment.

September 13, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Young-Chan and Soon-Ho in "Planet of Snail."
Young-Chan and Soon-Ho in "Planet of Snail." (Cinema Guild, Cinema Guild )

"Planet of Snail" is simple, direct and magical. The warm, intimate story of a singular couple, it won the top prize at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and it will win you over as well if you give it the chance.

The married Korean couple at the center of director Seungjun Yi's film seem unusual at first, and they are. But what this film reveals is that what is special about them is that they're extraordinary and ordinary in equal measure.

Husband Young-Chan is deaf and blind and rather tall. Though he lost his sight and hearing when he was young, he is able to speak, and in fact turns out to be an individual with quite a sly sense of humor. He is also an excellent poet who says that anyone with his condition has to have "the heart of an astronaut."

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Young-Chan's sprightly wife, Soon-Ho, is a tiny person with a spinal impediment who helps her husband physically navigate the world. But more than that, more than anything, these two people are the best of companions, people who share a playfulness and a sense of fun. It is both a pleasure and a great privilege to be observers in their world.

Working in close cooperation with the couple and shooting with only an assistant to hold the boom mike, filmmaker Yi opted to make a strictly observational film. There is no voice-over here, no talking heads, no on-camera interviews with the subjects, nothing exploitative or sentimental. Just an elegant, minimal look at life as it is lived.

"Planet of Snail's" opening scene sets its tone. Soon-Ho, who communicates with her husband through a tactile sign language she taps onto his fingers, is standing on a windy hillside, showing Young-Chan how to fly a kite.

Despite the obstacles in their way, this is a couple who want to enjoy as much of life as possible, an enjoyment often leavened with funny remarks. For instance, Young-Chan, a literal tree hugger, has this puckish response when Soon-Ho asks him what he is doing: "I'm talking to the tree. We're dating now. Don't bother us."

Some of the most involving sequences in "Planet of Snail" look into the obstacles daily life sometimes throws at the couple. The need to change a circular overhead fluorescent light necessitates a complicated ballet of cooperation between the two, with Young-Chan doing the changing and Soon-Ho tapping out instructions. It's such a triumph they give each other a hug when it's over.

Though their life is mostly with each other, we travel with the couple when they visit a theatrical troupe who want advice on a character who is deaf and blind. And we see them hosting a visit from some of Young-Chan's old schoolmates, who are frankly jealous of his new life.

"Planet of Snail" also deals with the couple coping with their ultimate fear: that their very closeness will prove to be problematic should Soon-Ho ever not be around. Even short separations are hard for both Young-Chan and the woman he calls "my longtime shadow friend," and this film lets us share in their wonderful closeness, even if just for a little while.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Planet of Snail'

MPAA rating: No rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle's Monica 4, Santa Monica.

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