The Korean documentary “Planet of Snail” is spare and unemphatic — too much so — with an abiding sweetness of spirit. It affords a window into the marriage of Young-chan, a writer who’s deaf and blind, and his wife, Soon-ho. He lost his sight and hearing after he had learned to speak (the film, which has no narration, doesn’t explain how he suffered the loss), so he has the ability to talk to her. She talks to him, too, but does her actual communicating to him by pressing her fingers into his hands to sign her words, in a tactile version of Braille. It is largely through touch that Young-chan experiences the world, which makes him akin to a snail, hence the film’s title.
As much as Young-chan and Soon-ho love each other, the camera loves them even more. He’s lanky and slightly stooped. Because of a spinal condition, she’s extremely short. Next to each other, they look like a stork and a penguin. The incongruity is touching rather than comic. And as the documentary shows the extent of the bond between them, the incongruity simply becomes another element in that bond.
The film presents the couple in various settings: their apartment; visiting a friend in the hospital; walking along the beach; snow tubing; at a rehearsal, then a performance, of a play he’s written; swimming. In a memorable scene, Young-chan embraces a small tree. The tenderness he displays as he hugs the trunk and caresses the bark is a marvel. The scene also gives him a chance to show off his sense of humor. “I’m dating now,” he says to Soon-ho, as he holds the tree.
Some reviewers have found “Planet of Snail” to be intensely moving, even transcendent. Certainly, it has elements that are intensely moving, even transcendent. How can a viewer not respond when Young-chan says, “All deaf-blind people have the heart of an astronaut”? Both stylistically and emotionally the filmmaker, Yi Seungjun, shows laudable restraint. There’s no sense whatsoever of intimacy exploited. But that same restraint has a flattening and distancing effect. “Planet of Snail” doesn’t so much unfold as present itself for random inspection. Sometimes a seeming artlessness can be the highest form of art. Sometimes, as here, it’s the absence of artfulness.