Looking to travel the world, but on a budget to stay local? Well then welcome to Foreign Friday, where we take international trips from the domestic locale known as your living room. An exploration of the world through its cinema, we don’t let the existence of subtitles scare us away. This week we stay on the nonfictional route with a documentary that takes us to South Korea with the quietly emotional and enlightening Planet of Snail.
Young-Chan was living a life of quiet solitude. Deaf and blind, he drifted through his days plagued by the sadness that his perpetual loneliness inflicted. That is until he found Soon-Ho. With an innate understanding of loneliness, the two fall for each other. Now they share an apartment in Korea. Young-Chan is Soon-Ho’s height and she his guide, embarking on a life of simplicity and happiness dodging all the obstacles that the world throws their way.
Planet of Snail makes the complaints of your everyday life, achingly trivial. In their modest home, Young-Chan and Soon-Ho appear to be surprisingly happy. Although they have very little, they have each other and that seems to be enough for them. The film is authentic to an extreme, simply popping in on the couple for a bit before exiting just as suddenly. Director Yi Seung-jun is not terribly concerned with telling any kind of traditional story. In fact we go for quite some time before even learning the names of our central couple. Instead of an actual narrative, Seung-jun brings us into the lives of Young-Chan and Soon-Ho, to witness how they live. There is far from a beginning, middle or end, but the duo is endlessly interesting and manages to fill the runtime easily.
Seung-jun very slowly enfolds us into the lives of his subjects, allowing us to see them alone before bringing in outside elements. They are forever happy and their romance is familiar and subtle enough to nearly go undetected. It isn’t the kind of romance that sees a couple running into each other’s arms or kissing passionately, but a more even keeled and genuine one. The couple we see is married and content. The routine is unspoken but clear and tasks are executed with a silent precision that runs counter to your very assumptions about disabilities. It is only when an unfamiliar event runs them aground that you see how far they will go to help one another. Something as simple as changing a light bulb takes up swaths of time but isn’t nearly as dull as it mundanely implies. Our modern cinematic definitions of romance are overflowing with rain-soaked lip-locks and impassioned speeches, but this is the true face of love. Love is putting another’s needs before your own and sacrificing anything to help them. We think that we want Ryan Gosling building us our dream house, but what we actually desire is a devoted James Garner reading at our bedside.
The film’s greatest strength, its slice-of-life authenticity, ultimately makes it feel just a bit inconsequential. The film hits its climax over a dinner with friends. In it, we are offered our first explanation as to how the couple ended up here. It is heartbreaking to watch Young-Chan’s friend try to reconcile the happiness he feels for him while harboring a great deal of envy. Young-Chan doesn’t really offer up any words of help, and comes off a bit entitled, as if he has the lock on loneliness. Young-Chan’s confidence in his own earning of happiness is nearly cocky compared to his friend, who truly just wants what he has. The sentiment comes down to a why-you-and-not-me quandary, and it’s tough to watch the friend’s frustration. All romance carries with it a degree of luck and it is unfortunate that Young-Chan doesn’t acknowledge this, as his friend struggles. After this moment, the story lacks a true forward momentum and a last act effort to show the two exploring a life apart feels nearly tacked on. Time spent with Young-Chan and Soon-Ho is not unenjoyable, it’s just that director Yi Seung-jun runs out of things to say, but not film to shoot. The meandering quality of the final act, robs the film of some of its initial power, but certainly not all of it.
Every year we are buried under a dearth of romantic comedies. They tout this skewed vision of love and an image of romance bathed in high-end jewelry and blooming bouquets. As the attractive yet terribly unexceptional woman rushes around in hopes of finding her perfect husband, amorous affection is replaced by lust and one-liners. We subconsciously know that this is a flawed ideal, yet we promote it as box office returns show our unfailing desire to consume it. Planet of Snail is a true romance. Young-Chan and Soon-Ho are average people living an average life. Sure, Young-Chan is deaf blind and Soon-Ho has spinal issues and a miniscule stature, but their disabilities do not keep them from living a more-or-less comfortable life. Director Yi Seung-jun, however, is able to capture the remarkable strength of their relationship. The struggles they experience to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks are masked in their unfaltering faith and devotion to one another. While, as a film it doesn’t always captivate, Planet of Snail offers an honest portrayal of the very best kind of love, and is unfalteringly hopeful.
Derek writes plenty about film, to get all of it, follow him on Twitter @DerekDeskins.