Thursday, May 24, 2012
HRAFF Review: PLANET OF SNAIL
Young-Chan is tall and slender with delicate features and precise movements. Walking outside with his wife is like a picture imagined by Allejandro Jodorowsky. Soon-Ho is not much taller than a metre. She has to stand on a stool to do the dishes. When Young-Chan stands beside her at the sink he still towers over her. But when they walk outside together, guiding each other through air that glitters with snowflakes, it's neither funny nor confronting: you're just too busy being fascinated.
On the surface of it this is a film about coping with disability. A little, and only a little, deeper into it reveals an absorbing exploration of the human mind and its hunger for discovery. Young-Chin is a patient thinker and forms his thoughts with the care of a calligrapher, letter by letter, word by word, as he builds his description of the planet where he has landed.
Planet of Snail invites us into Young-Chan's investigations and allows us a pretty workable idea of what it's like to be him. Because of her height, Soon-Ho can't replace the failed circular fluro light in the bedroom. She has to guide Young-Chan through each movement, desrcibing what he must do next to install and secure the bulb, communicating through tactile signing where she seems to play his fingers like typewriter keys. Between the two of them the job is done and the light which means nothing to him is restored. The sequence is extraordinary not because it's a gruelling step by step climb through failure but because its purpose is to show the harmony struck between this pair of people who had considered themselves irredeemably lonely before meeting each other.
Keeping the focus on both Young-Chan's constant discovery and the essential weave of experience he and Soon-Ho must maintain results in a constantly rewarding film that, though it includes it, never becomes a plea to its audience's sympathy. Young-Chan surprises us early on with his voice. He was neither blind nor deaf from birth and has developed an eloquence equal to his physical elegance. The narration he shares with Soon-Ho swings between an authentic poetry and hard pragmatism that act as effective counterweights and prevent a progress-murdering slump either way.
On that last point, if you want disabled people on screen to be seen for themselves rather than through counterproductive pity, show them arguing. A social visit includes an amiable spat between Young-Chan and his similarly deaf-blind childhood friend. This is waged in spoken taunts and rejoinders which neither can hear but everybody else can. There is a necessary pause each time between the message and its delivery, each one knowing that the point scored has met with applause, just not how much.
Touch is the more powerful of Young-Chan's two languages as it is the one that he has mastered more than anyone hearing and sighted ever does. When reaching into the rain through the window of his flat he even closes his eyes, perhaps in memory of what that once meant to him. Same when he literally hugs a knotty old tree. It's almost worship. When Soon-Ho wants to join in he jokes that it would be like a threesome. He's smiling but it's clear what he means. And then, finally, he floats in the sea, loosely tethered to safety by a rope to shore we understand why we have been listening to the dull rush of underwater sounds throughout the film and also that here, more than in any other moment, he resumes the role of astronaut.