Seung-Jun Yi's doc "Planet of Snail" was the big winner at IDFA last fall, and it is having its North American premiere this weekend at Tribeca. And while I have yet to see too many other docs at the fest just yet, I'd wager a bet that it will end up being one of the festival's very best.
Don't let the title fool you. It's not a nature documentary about snails. "Planet of Snail" is actually a quietly powerful portrait of Young-Chan, a Korean man who is both deaf and blind (he calls himself a "snail" as he can only communicate through touch). At the centre of the story is Young-Chan's relationship with his wife Soon-Ho, who lovingly works as his eyes and ears.
With impressive intimacy, "Snail" depicts a remarkably endearing relationship in Young-Chan and Soon-Ho. The manner in which the pair respect each other, laugh with one another – despite the complications of their situation – works as a significant testament to the potential of the human spirit and the power of love. It also gives a clear window into the lives of people facing what could clearly be a brutally lonely disability.
During IDFA, I sat down with Seung-Jun. It seems that before Seung-Jun made the film, he met his future subject when he was making an education television program about communicating with fingers (which Young-Chan clearly excels at).
"After that we became friends," Seung-Jun said. "We're the same age. He's a very interesting guy. And it's not because he's dead and blind. As you see in the film, his poetry is so beautiful. And he's also very funny and humourous. I was attracted by these factors."
Young-Chan did not want to be filmed at first. Seung-Jun approached him with the idea but he was concerned with how he might be portrayed, particularly given he wouldn't be able to see or hear what Seung-Jun was filming.
"I fully understood his opinion," Seung-Jun said. "I told him that I'm not going to make some easy TV documentary. It won't be one month of shooting and one month of editing and then broadcast on TV. But that's how most factual programs are made in Korea and they call it documentary."
Young-Chan and his wife Soon-Ho became convinced as they started to get to know Seung-Jun better and he continued to emphasize the creative integrity of the project he wanted to make.
Seung-Jun filmed the pair for over two years and continued to gain their trust in process.
"Sometimes they'd say 'today I don't want to be filmed,'" Seung-Jun said. "And I'd say 'okay, let's have a coffee or a talk or something like that.' So I took my time. With that attitude I gained their trust. Also, they are very good people. And as a director, that made very happy."
It also should make audiences around the documentary film festival circuit happy over the next year or so, when "Planet of Snail" is sure to make the rounds. The trust he built with his subjects helped create the intimacy that made "Snail" the talk of IDFA, and now Tribeca.
For more information, check out the film's website. And go see it this weekend if you're in New York.
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