BiFan 2022 Review: THE FIFTH THORACIC VERTEBRA, Singular Debut Promises Great Things to Come
Without a doubt the most unique Korean film presented at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (or indeed anywhere) this year, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the debut feature of Park Syeyoung, a 26-year-old filmmaker with an arresting and inimitable visual style.
His film is about a mouldy mattress that passes through different hands. The mould grows and takes on a life of its own, eventually becoming a grotesque creature that stalks the dark corners of Seoul, feeding on the fifth vertebrae of the disparate people unlucky enough to cross its path.
It's a thoroughly unique concept, but in truth describing the story of the film does very little to prepare you for experiencing it. Park's film is all about tone and sensation and while its loose story does thread several episodes together, it's merely a sounding board for the work's principal preoccupations - modern malaise and alienation.
Tonally and stylistically, the film is pitched somewhere between the bizarre and manic ickiness of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and the dreamy haziness of the cinema of Wong Kar-wai but even that intriguing analogy doesn't completely do justice to The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, a film which manages to deliver on the uncanny and uncertain promise of its title.
The mattress at the center of the story enters the story as it lies against a parking wall on a snowy day to the right of frame. A woman has just arrived to move in with her boyfriend but since she was too late for the movers she needs to lug the mattress up the stairs herself. The scene begins with a title informing us of the date, location and the number of days until to the birth of the creature the mattress will eventually produce (presently 337). This clock appears throughout the film.
The mould makes its first appearance when the relationship cracks, 289 days - roughly the length of a human pregnancy - before the creature's birth. Having already entered the picture as a burden the mattress becomes symbolic for the end of this relationship. Their heartbreak spreads to the mattress, becoming its rotting core. After it is tossed out it continues its sad journey through the hands of different people in the city, feeding on their loneliness until the creature emerges.
Despite his young age, director Park has already made a reputation for himself with a number of unique short films, include the award-winning Cashbag. He also co-directed Louis Vuitton-BTS collaboration short with Jeon Go-woon (Microhabitat), who appears in Park's cast here alongside other Korean indie filmmakers such as Lim Dae-hyoung (Moonlit Winter) and Woo Moon-gi (The King of Jogku).
Park employs a number of styles in his feature debut, with the cinematography ranging from time-lapse photography to intimate, handheld closeups, while the grading of the film incorporates striking green, beige and red and occasionally coarse digital grain. The ethereal electronic soundtrack, which includes a refreshing cover of Claude Debussy's oft-used 'Claire to Lune', complements the film's eerie tone.
According to Park, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra started life as a 20-page script and throughout the film's 10-day winter shoot, he didn't know if it was going to wind up as a short or a feature. At 61 minutes, it just about qualifies as a feature and while it absolutely works as one, that also means that at time it feels like we're not the full force of what Park's creative vision may be.
With such a special and confidently mounted debut feature and so much time ahead of him there's no doubt a follow-up feature will materialize for Park, and when it does it will likely confirm and build on the huge promise shown here.