Planet of Snail: Tribeca Review

Haunting doc about deaf-blind man handles heartbreaking subject with restraint.

Seung-Jun Yi's doc approaches the disabilities of a writer who is both deaf and blind, and can only see the world through touching.

NEW YORK — A disability-centric doc that moves viewers without resorting to trite devices, Seung-Jun Yi's Planet of Snail takes a condition most of us would find unbearable and demystifies it while finding room for poetry. Its pairing of extreme subject matter and aesthetic restraint makes it well suited for arthouses.

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Both deaf and blind almost from birth, Cho Youngchan can only experience the world through touch. He reads Braille, using an electro-mechanical Braille-display device when books aren't available, and can "hear" what others are saying only via a finger-tapping code that requires constant contact. Despite these obstacles to communication, he is a writer, using poignant metaphors to capture his relationship to the world. (The film's title is never explained here, but its snail's-pace gist is clear as we watch the young man navigate his physical environment.)
Youngchan is married to Soon-Ho, a woman whose spinal disfigurement makes her barely half his height. It sounds cheap to describe their disabilities as complementing each other, but the film shows a bond transcending mere teamwork: Here, a small chore -- replacing an oddly shaped fluorescent lamp, say -- becomes an almost astonishing symbiotic achievement.
Late in the film, Soon-Ho silently coaches Youngchan until he can hit the cameraman with a tossed pinecone, but instruction can go in the other direction as well: When he writes a play, Youngchan steers a sighted actress toward a believable performance without being able to see or hear her.
Love story aside, the film's most affecting moments -- like a scene of literal tree-hugging, in which the infinite variations of bark texture offer something like rapture -- could easily have been mawkish in another filmmaker's hands. But Seung-Jun Yi's austere approach, enhanced by a subtle electronic soundtrack whose glitchy percussion echoes the bumpy movement of mechanical Braille, keep sentimentality at bay.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Production Companies: NHK, Imamura Ken-ichi
Director: Seung-Jun Yi
Producers: Min-Chul Kim, Gary Kam
Executive producer: Dongsung Cho
Music: Min Seonki
Editor: Simon El Habre, Seung-Jun Yi
Sales: Maëlle Guenegues, CAT & Docs
No rating, 87 minutes