The obvious way to approach South Korean director Seung-jun Yi's modest but potent documentary Planet of Snail is to think of it as a story about a disabled man making his way through the world with the help of his companion. But more simply and more accurately, it's really a movie about marriage — about the way two people can smooth over each other's cracks to achieve an imperfect yet sturdy wholeness.
Young-chan is a tall, striking fellow who can neither see nor hear, though he learned to speak at an early age, before he lost his vision and hearing. When we first see him in Planet of Snail, he's attempting to launch a kite with the help of a very small person who appears, at first glance, to be a child; this is his wife, Soon-ho, a tiny woman with an incandescent face and long, dark, lush hair. She's giving Young-chan tips on how to fly the kite, spelling out her ideas in tactile sign language, or finger-braille: Her fingertips touch the tops of his fingers lightly, as if she were typing or playing piano on the most delicate, responsive keys imaginable.
What unfolds from there is a portrait of practical symbiosis in both domestic and emotional terms. Yi — who directed a previous documentary, the 2008 Children of God, about a group of children living near a sacred crematorium in Nepal — finds quiet poetry in workaday visual language. Soon-ho prepares dinner for a group of Young-chan's friends, classmates from a school for the blind. She sets out the various dishes, small bowls of rice and fish and vegetables, and methodically guides the men's hands toward one dish or another so they'll know what's in each.
That's what she does for Young-chan, as well, when it's just the two of them eating alone. Her understanding of what Young-chan needs has become intuition, a kind of second sight to help compensate for the literal sight that he lacks.
That's an invisible quality, something that should be impossible to capture with a camera, and yet somehow Yi puts this miniature bit of lightning in a bottle: The tenderness that passes between the two is like a special sort of electricity transmitted via fingertips — it can't quite be picked up on film, and yet you can almost see its crackle. In one sequence, Soon-ho scans a web site to see if Young-chan has won an essay contest he entered. She doesn't see his name there, and the gentleness and good humor with which she breaks the news to him is unmarred by condescension. The male ego is a tricky beast, and being deaf an blind has nothing to do with it.
Soon-ho is Young-chan's chief caretaker, and the movie does address Young-chan's need to become more independent: Yi captures the muted suspense of a day that Soon-ho spends by herself after sending Young-chan off, armed with his white cane, for a day on his own.
But more often Planet of Snail evokes, in radiant detail, the mutual reliance that makes good partnerships work. Young-chan and Soon-ho put their heads together to figure out how to change the circular light bulb in their bedroom: Soon-ho is too tiny to reach it, even as she's perched on Young-chan's shoulders, and on his own Young-chan can't see the gizmo he's supposed to be replacing. But side-by-side the two figure it out.
Young-chan is an accomplished essayist and poet, and Planet of Snail is punctuated by his fine-grained but resolute observations: "All deaf-blind people have the heart of an astronaut," he says at one point, alluding to the sense of isolation that he'll never be able to fully escape. Young-chan may be floating free in space, but a fellow traveler hovers close by; the tether between them, and the world, is invisible but strong. (Recommended)