Yi Seung-jun is one of Korea's emerging directors in the world documentary scene. Among a dozen TV length documentaries and shorts, he has directed ‘Children of God’ (2008), a story about children living in the crematorium of Nepal. The film has travelled the world and is being distributed worldwide. His interest in filmmaking has always focused on the life of so-called ‘unseen minorities’, and this has almost become his signature style of filmmaking. With his new feature length documentary 'Planet of Snail', Yi Seung-jun details the day-to-day life of Young-chan, who is deaf-blind, and his wife Soon-ho.
Hangul Celluloid: What lay behind your decision to base a documentary on the subject of a deaf-blind person and how did you come to choose Young-chan as the specific subject of ‘Planet of Snail’?
Yi Seung-jun: Young-chan was invited by a forum for the deaf-blind in Japan in 2006, and he learned finger Braille there. After coming back to Korea, he started using finger Braille and spread the its use to other deaf-blind people in Korea. Korean newspapers dealt with his story, and I came to know about him through those articles. In 2008, I was making a TV science factual program about fingers of human beings, and I thought Young-chan’s story was worth covering because he used his fingers as communication tools. I filmed him for 2 days at that time, but that was too short a time to get into his story, his life. After several months, I came to believe that if I made a documentary film about him and his wife, it could draw the interest of the public. In Korea there has been no proper research about the deaf-blind and so we had no idea about how many deaf-blind there are, how they manage their lives, or even where they are living. I wanted Korean society to become interested in the deaf-blind in Korea. However, after I met Young-chan and Soon-ho several times, I became more interested more in the couple themselves rather than the fact that they are disabled. Young-chan had special senses to read, feel and express this world, and I was really moved by these. I wanted to share those senses with audience. That’s how I started this project.
Hangul Celluloid: You said at a recent Q&A that Young-chan didn’t originally want to be involved in the film. What approach did you take to convince him to change his mind?
Yi Seung-jun: I tried to be frank, honest. The couple disliked the way mass media has dealt with disabled people. Most of the Korean media has regarded disabled people as people who need help - the media describes them pitiful, helpless, poor, etc. and tries to make audiences or readers feel sorry for them. The couple didn’t like the way the media portrayed the disabled, so they refused to be filmed. As a documentary director, I told them I didn’t like that way either and I was going to take time to approach ‘truth and reality’, I was not going to be hurried. I tried to talk with them as a friend and they eventually opened their minds so I could start shooting.
Hangul Celluloid: You have worked extensively in the television documentary industry. What are the biggest differences from a directorial point of view between creating a documentary for television and one for cinema?
Yi Seung-jun: TV and cinema are very different platforms. Attitude of audiences toward the two platforms are very different too. In general, TV audiences are passive, but, on the other hand, audiences of cinema are active. The differences between a documentary for TV and a documentary for cinema mainly come from that characteristic.
TV stations always ask for a ‘kind of explanation.’ Everything should be clear and logical. Basic information (name, location, main character’s job, situation, etc.) must be given to audience in the front part of programs. Without that information, audiences easily change channels. But cinema audiences go to the cinema by themselves, they pay for the ticket, and while a film is being screened, most of them are seated until the film finishes. It does not matter whether it is so interesting or not. They want to think, understand, and feel a film by themselves. So, a documentary for cinema never gives basic information in the front part of the film. If a film gives too much information in the early stages, it means the film deprives the audience of enjoying the film. Audiences want to discover element by element.
Hangul Celluloid: You have previously said that a shorter television version of ‘Planet of Snail’ was also created. Were scenes cut for that version or simply shortened? What dictated which scenes were cut/shortened?
Yi Seung-jun: I made a TV version which is 52minutes. If I say it is just shortened or some scenes were cut, it is simplifying the version too much. I mean, of course there are some scenes which were cut and added. But the most important difference between the feature version and TV version is that the TV version tried to give as much information as possible, and basic information at the front.
Hangul Celluloid: To me, Soon-ho is incredibly important to ‘Planet of Snail’ both in the almost palpable way in which her love for Young-chan (and his for her) shows throughout and also in the fact that she seems to be just as lost without him as he is without her. At what point after first meeting Young-chan and Soon-ho did you realise that their relationship was so symbiotic?
Yi Seung-jun: I filmed the couple for 2 years. At first I thought Soon-ho had been born to be an angel. She was such a nice lady to Young-chan. Her love seemed more like devoted love. But after almost one year had passed, I came to feel her loneliness, which was also deep and wide, but she hardly talked about it to me. As time went on, I had the chance to talk with her and she discussed about how she lived. Through dialog with her, I understood why she could love him - it’s because she empathized with his loneliness so well, she felt his loneliness from the heart of hearts. The couple empathize with each other’s loneliness, and their love comes from there. That’s why they need each other so much.
Hangul Celluloid: The early scene of Soon-ho helping Young-chan to fly a kite seems to serve as a metaphor for Young-chan himself: A man who desperately wants to fly but who is tethered by his disability, just as the kite is tethered by its cord. Was this scene specifically created by you to show that type of idea?
Yi Seung-jun: Not exactly the same, but a similar idea. Even though Young-chan is deaf-blind, so there are many things that he cannot do, he has strong desire toward life itself. He wants to do as many things as possible, and I was so impressed by that. Flying a kite was one of things he really wanted to do. I wanted to show someone's desire to do something even though it looks to be a very small thing. And when I saw them trying their best to fly kite, it felt odd, weird.... like they were in a fairy tale. I was going to make this documentary as a fairy tale for adults, and I thought the scene was the right one to make audience feel it. So I put the scene in the very first part.
Hangul Celluloid: The later scene of Young-chan almost buried in sand (apart from his head and hands), to my mind, also speaks of a similar idea - of how isolated he is with only his hands free to allow contact from the outside world. Can you talk to us a little more about this scene and its creation?
Yi Seung-jun: As a matter of fact, that scene's role is to remind the audience of the characteristic of Young-chan one more time, I mean, in the previous sequence Young-chan is not seen that much during his friends' and wife's practicing and performing drama, and I had to flow into the last scene, the underwater scene. Before going to the closing scene, I wanted to show his characteristic (like a seeker after truth, and humorous...) again.
Hangul Celluloid: The film is clearly totally real in its following of the day-to-day lives of Young-chan and Soon-ho. Were any of the situations in the film decided beforehand and how much of the narrative was you filming their lives naturally unfolding?
Yi Seung-jun: Most of the scenes are natural. I just followed their everyday lives and if I discovered some moments which were valuable, then I filmed them. It is the one of the most important rules when I’m filming; Let it be, and film it. But it’s true that the scene of beach is, in a sense, not natural. Young-chan wanted to go on a picnic with other deaf-blind people, or blind friends, including his wife, and I knew he was very good at swimming, so I asked him if he had ever gone swimming in the sea. He said “Yes”. So, I suggested that we should all go to a beach together. He wanted to swim in the sea, so we prepared long rope which was used for his security. And we also hired a cameraman specialized in underwater shooting. That’s how I could create the last scene.
Hangul Celluloid: Were there any specific difficulties in being “invisible” when filming, considering how intimately some scenes were filmed?
Yi Seung-jun: If you take time with the characters, if you spend as much time with them as possible, if you become their friend, they come to realize that you’re not just a director, but a very close person. Then it becomes easy to get access to their lives, and it helps you to be invisible when filming.
Hangul Celluloid: The loneliness felt by those with disabilities is one of the major themes of ‘Planet of Snail’. Was it your intention to detail this from the outset or did it only become clear as you were filming?
Yi Seung-jun: When I started filming, I couldn’t feel that the loneliness of people with disabilities is so strong and wide, but there was one moment when I truly felt their loneliness within my heart. In the film, one day several people with disabilities visit the couple, and one of them, who is also deaf-blind, begins talking about ‘how jealous he is of the couple’ and he says he feels loneliness in his everyday life. The sequence, even though it deals with serious topic, came to feel so funny because Young-chan tells the guy that what he was ready for in marriage was not money, house, job, etc. but dispelling ‘loneliness’ After filming this, I deeply realised that loneliness is the most difficult thing in the lives of those with disabilities.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Planet of Snail’ is deeply moving but it is also tremendously uplifting, helped in part by Young-chan and Soon-ho’s sense of humour and love of fun. How did you find a balance between the poignant aspects and the happier moments?
Yi Seung-jun: I wanted this film to be bright as a whole, I try not to describe them as people who need assistance, for whom the audience feel sorry, etc. The couple is humorous as they are, which I liked very much. But sometimes I felt a kind of odd sadness if I imagined Young-chan’s hopelessness when he was a teenager or Soon-ho’s loneliness when she was a child. I wanted to show those moods and feelings as well. But I tried to find a way, a style, to reveal such moods and feelings which are different from ordinary TV stations and news agencies.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Planet of Snail’ has been screened in a number of countries, both in Asia and the West. How was the film received in Korea and have reactions been different in other countries and cultures?
Yi Seung-jun: Planet of Snail was released theatrically in Korea last March, and around 18,000 people saw the film. Well, the feedback of the Korean audience was not that different from those of other countries. They loved the characters, they were moved by the couple’s love, they were curious about 'how I started this project, how I filmed them, etc.' But some audience members did not like the fact that I didn’t make a stereotypical film dealing with people with disabilities, that is, at one point they (not many, some) didn't like that I didn't show their hardships, such as economical problems... or the harder aspects of their everyday lives... which have been covered by a lot of newspapers and TV programs. They might have felt uncomfortable, because they couldn't see what they had expected in the film. Besides that, feedback was really great and I had a lot of interviews with the Korean media. Korean government organizations associated with film, TV, and documentary funding were also very interested in a theatrical release of the film. Also many prominent officials have seen Planet of Snail, including the Prime Minister.
Hangul Celluloid: Your next documentary project is also on the subject of those who are deaf-blind. Can you tell us more about it?
Yi Seung-jun: I'm currently developing a new documentary project. The title is <Like wind, Yeji and I> which deals with a mother whose daughter was born deaf and blind, so she has not been able to speak a word. The daughter's name is Yeji, and she is 17 years old. Through this documentary I'd like to talk about 'language beyond language' while Planet of Snail was the film about 'a different language from us'. I want to focus on the relationship between a deaf and blind daughter and her family without speaking or hearing and I'd like to discover something more important beyond language in humans which is missing in our everyday life. Even though I cannot show the inner world of Yeji logically, I don't think 'logic' is the only way to explain and reveal the valuable aspects of a human being's life. It's very challenging.
Hangul Celluloid: You previously made a documentary called ‘Children of God’ which details the story of homeless Hindu children who are largely separate from society and are seen by many as less important. Do you feel there is a link between the themes of that story and the depiction of Young-chan and Soon-ho in relation to their place within society at large?
Yi Seung-jun: My main concern about this world as a documentary director is stories connected with minority of minorities and something which is not seen easily by us in our daily lives. The children in Children of God were living at a crematory area which is also famous for a holy Hindu temple, so tons of tourists visit the place. Children were always there, but almost no one got interested in their story. There are people who have been forgotten, who are being forgotten, who are not paid attention to... I always like to film them and create story about them, and in that sense you can say that Young-chan and the children are connected.
Hangul Celluloid: Both films also accent religion in their narratives. Do you feel that Young-chan and Soon-ho have gained comfort from religious beliefs they’ve always had? Did they ever voice any questions/comments about their lives in relation to religion?
Yi Seung-jun: The couple is religious, and Soon-ho used to say that they felt comfort and peace in mind through their religious lives. One of Young-chan's dreams is to enter the first deaf and blind ministry in Korea.
Hangul Celluloid: How much input did you have in the music and audio soundtrack ultimately used in ‘Planet of Snail’?
Yi Seung-jun: The music was composed by a Korean who was also the music composer of Children of God. I asked him to make the music less emotional. The sound design was done by a Finnish sound designer. It took around 4 month as a whole to finish all the sound works.
Hangul Celluloid: What do you want audiences to take away with them after watching ‘Planet of Snail’? What do you feel Young-chan and Soon-ho would want audiences to feel?
Yi Seung-jun: The couple used to tell the audience in Korea during Q&A’s that they want people to be interested in those who are deaf and blind, and pay attention to those people who are in the minority of minorities in Korea. As the director, I want audience to begin thinking about 'different ways of feeling, understanding this world' and to think of how to empathize with the loneliness of others.
Hangul Celluloid: Finally, I believe you’ll be returning to the UK in September, possibly with Young-chan. What will be the main purpose of that visit?
Yi Seung-jun: He and his wife are going to take part in an overseas' visiting program supported by a non-profit organization. The purpose of the program is to give mainly the young generation an opportunity to learn something from abroad. Even though Young-chan is not that young, the organization agreed on sending the couple, as well as myself and the producer, to enable them to learn 'how the deaf and blind in developed countries, in terms of the system for deaf and blind, are living', and the couple has been to Japan, so they decided to also visit UK, which they've never been to. They will stay in UK for 2 weeks, visiting the organization for the deaf and blind, called Sense, meeting the deaf and blind there, etc.
I'd sincerely like to thank director Yi Seung-jun for taking to time to amswer my many questions in such depth.