Planet of Snail
Director: Yi Seungjun
Director: Alexei Fedorchenko
Two patient celebrations of uxoriousness aim to entice patrons up the arthouse aisles this week: Yi Seungjun’s Korean documentary Planet of Snail and Alexei Fedorchenko’s Russian fiction Silent Souls – although the nature of the latter’s “reality” is very much part of its elusive oddness. There’s nothing ambiguous about Yi’s Planet of Snail, however, which took the top prize at one of the world’s top non-fiction festivals at Amsterdam last November. It’s an old-school fly-on-the-wall portrait of the marriage between poet Youngchan – whose sensory impairments are such that the non-PC description “deaf-blind” is in this instance perhaps warranted – and Soonho, a lady of reduced growth who communicates with her husband by means of touch alone.
Tapping out messages to each other using their hands, the couple are able to enjoy an intimate and loving relationship in their own apartment – indeed, Yi’s film presents their bond as a near-cloudlessly joyous and calmly harmonious union of closely-complementing personalities.
Recording their daily activities an a close but respectful distance, Yi takes us into the apparently closed-off sensory world of Youngchan, a deeply reflective chap who seeks stimulation in the most seemingly humdrum emanations of nature such as rainfall and the feel of tree-bark. There are hints that Youngchan’s spirituality may have Christian elements – the religion has become a major element of Korean society over the last couple of decades – but these are not explored, likewise Yi is tactfully evasive on the matter of the couple’s private life.
Avoiding much mention of religion, sex and conflict, not to mention money (how do the pair make ends meet?) Planet of Snail – a title never really explained in the picture itself – is instead a very quiet, ruminative and disarmingly simple paean to togetherness, executed in Yi’s own limpidly clear digital-video cinematography. There’s one particularly remarkable scene in which Youngchan almost single-handedly changes a lightbulb – a minor household chore for most, but a matter of protractedly intricate planning and dextrous ingenuity here, performed with minimal, good-natured guidance from the reliably upbeat Soonho. Indeed, the leavening streaks of humour are vital to the success with which Planet of Snail handles potentially depressing – even tragic – subject-matter with persuasive buoyancy, Yi managing the very tricky feat of depicting both disability and happiness without tipping into mawkishness or tear-jerkery.
Whereas Yi’s movie makes a virtue of its unadorned directness, Alexei Fedorchenko’s third feature Silent Souls is a much trickier and more complex proposition all round. The opening titles state that the screenplay is based on a novel by one ‘Aist Sergeyev’ – but an internet search for this author’s name yields only the Silent Souls character who retrospectively narrates the action. Aist (played by Igor Sergeyev) travels with his friend, factory-owner Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), to cremate the body of the latter’s recently-deceased and much-loved wife – in accordance with the traditions of the ‘Merjan’ people whose homelands are to be found in the Lake Nero region of west-central Russia.
The Merjans are real enough, but the arcane rituals attributed to them here are, Fedorchenko has freely admitted, fabricated. He’s clearly fascinated by alternative, fanciful narratives interwoven with actual people and events – his 2005 debut First on the Moon was a provocatively witty and ultimately quite moving account of the USSR’s lunar conquests of the 1930s.
That picture, which featured a truly phenomenal lead performance from the mysterious Boris Vlasov (his sole screen credit to date) as the proto-Gagarin figure, rather unfairly failed to score a UK release – ditto his little-seen 2007 followup The Railway. But Silent Souls has managed to nab distribution, albeit nearly two years after world-premiering at Venice in September 2010, where Mikhail Krichman’s elementally-sensitive outdoorsy cinematography took the prize for Outstanding Technical Contribution.
Its appearance on our screens is nothing if not timely, only a couple of weeks after Russia’s folksy grannies grabbed the runner-up spot in the Eurovision Song Contest for a ditto partly sung in the dialect of their native Udmurtia – one of the many ethnic minorities who have, like the Merjans, enjoyed a return to some degree of prominence since the dissolution of the USSR.
Fedorchenko’s playfully mournful 75-minute reverie also alerts British cinemagoers to the skills of Krichman, who also shot a genuine masterpiece of the resurgent Russian cinema, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena (set for release here later this year). Silent Souls isn’t up to that level, its interlocking of memories, fantasies and myths more a matter of piquant mood than especially stimulating substance, and as often frustrating and baffling as it is beguiling and entrancing. But at its best it achieves a pungently earthy kind of cockeyed poetry, as in the lyrics of a witchcraft-inflected Merjan song which is performed at a moment of typically high, drink-fuelled emotion: “I went do the pharmacy / Bought some soapwort I’d found / And some dried swamp viburnum / That I’d bought by the pound…”
5th June, 2012
written for Tribune magazine