Photograph by CHOI Sung-yeol
Top prize winner at the 24th International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), director Yi Seung-Jun
's "Planet of Snail
" is a documentary about deaf and blind husband Jo Yeong-chan
and his wife Kim Soon-ho
, who has a spinal impediment. Everything they want to say, everything they think, they communicate with their hands. It's not the kind of film that stirs up pity and compassion about an intense struggle against the world. Their life together as seen in the film is beautiful and almost fairytale-like.
The film was co-produced with Japanese broadcaster NHK, in association with Finnish public broadcaster YLE and the Finnish Film Foundation. It received grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach Documentary Grant, and EBS International Documentary Festival (EIDF) Fund. The film's international sales agent CAT&Docs also sold it to UK distributor Dogwoof.
Ahead of its March 22 release in Korea, KIM Seong-hoon met with Yi to talk about "Planet of Snail
" for "Korean Cinema Today" (KCT).
KCT: The documentary is about a husband who cannot see or hear, and a wife who has a spinal impediment. How did you come to tell this story?
YI: In the spring of 2008, I did a science documentary for EBS. The subject matter was about the human finger - a story explaining fingers scientifically. While I was researching fingers, I discovered that Jo Yeong-chan
, the protagonist in "Planet of Snail
", talks with his fingers. It's called "tactile sign language". I shot him tactile signing for about two days. Then at the end of that year, I he came to mind as I was thinking of what to do for my next film. The fact is deaf-blind people have never really been known in Korea. With the vague thought that it might be good to cover the stories of such people in a documentary, I met again with Young-chan and his wife. As I was talking with them, I felt and realized what a great deal of human charm Young-chan has. If you see the documentary, it's obvious he writes very well. The way he talks, too, is philosophical but not difficult. He has a handicap, but he reads and expresses the world in his own way. And it was so beautiful to see how he behaves and talks with his wife in that way, too.
KCT: When you told them you wanted to make a documentary, did the couple agree to it happily?
YI: At first, I was refused. They were offended by the way established media like newspapers and broadcasters looked at physically challenged people with pity and compassion. I mean how people have been so inured such media's ways and can only feel comfortable if they see the physically challenged having a hard time. I disliked that, too. I launched into the project excluding that, but when I was in the middle of shooting, the thought that it would be moving if I showed Young-chan's tears did occur to me despite myself. There was a temptation to shoot that, but as we carried on shooting for about a year, I got rid of all those kind of thoughts.
"Planet of Snail
" observes the couple's everyday lives without any great events to steer the story. In a way, it is far from a classic sort of narrative development.
YI: Their everyday lives were so uneventful. Going to school, eating, reading. That was what concerned me at first. But one of the beliefs I have is that 'if you observe daily life for a long time, a story unfolds naturally. Even if you don't lean on a traditional narrative structure'.
KCT: When you were shooting them, was the couple ever self-conscious?
YI: In situations such as when he's taking an exam or they are going to the hospital, they weren't self-conscious at all. Soon-ho said, "It's the most embarrassing when you shoot me eating". (laughs) Despite that, on site it was only me holding the camera and the assistant director holding the boom mike, so I got to be friendly with the couple quickly compared to on other pieces. We ate together, too. One some days, Soon-ho would say, "I'm not feeling good, I wish you wouldn't shoot today", and I would say, "Alright then", and turned off the camera.
KCT: I heard there are several versions of the film.
YI: A total of three. It received the EIDF Fund for pre-production in 2009 and was selected as the festival's 2010 Opening Film. I had to edit the festival Opening Film version with a running time of about 70 minutes as soon as the shooting was done. Likewise, I made an NHK broadcast version as well. After that, I had to edit a theatrical version, which is what has been released now. But I was so immersed in the film that I found I couldn't edit the theatrical version myself. So I asked a friend I met at an overseas film festival, the Lebanese documentary director Simon El Habre to edit it. We traded comments online for almost a month as the editing was carried out, and we worked together for two weeks when Simon came to Seoul.
YI: After he saw a version I edited, he said something like this: "You keep trying to pull the audience along as you go. 'Look, here's an interesting episode, so watch this. Have you seen this? Then here another episode'."He said the audience needed to imagine and think about what the film's protagonist's life was like. That was the tone. That's also the reason why this current version's editing has rather slow pacing.
KCT: What's your next project?
YI: I haven't thought about one in detail yet. There is a subject similar to that of "Planet of Snail", and I plan to meet with them once I have some time. Also, my mother is from the North, one of the people who have lost their hometowns. You know a lot of people who have memories and recollections of North Korea are dying away. I have a vague idea that I would like to make a film with that kind of theme for my mother.