The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra — Syeyoung Park
Credit: Fantasia Fest
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 3: Swallowed, Special Delivery, My Small Land

July 25, 2022


Things have been building to this moment for a while, but ever since films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw crossed over to find a mainstream audience — along with the emergence of the “elevated” horror subgenre and its associated online ecosystem of video essay devotees — the term “body horror” has been in serious danger of devolving into a hollow marketing term, readily deployed to give an aura of credibility to otherwise bland work, while catering to an audience that, unless encouraged by puffed-up think pieces or YouTubers willing to explain the themes to them, wouldn’t be caught dead watching a horror film. Even Alex Garland’s trite #YesAllMen tract Men was touted as a provocative genre exercise, complete with a calculated, “do you get the metaphor?” body horror climax. In contrast, Carter Smith‘s past work on films such as The Ruins stood out as gnarly and gleefully mean-spirited, and the “queer” descriptor in Swallowed‘s “queer body horror” marketing tag could very well be indicative of a characteristically queer provocation in the vein of John Waters, James Robert Baker, or the sadomasochistic extremes of Hisayasu Satô’s cinema of cruelty.

Fresh-faced twentysomething Benjamin (Cooper Koch) dreams of making it big as a gay porn star in L.A. Before moving there from his sleepy little town in Maine, he spends his last night partying with his best friend Dom (Jose Colon), who wants to send Benjamin off with a going-away present in the form of cold, hard cash. All they need to do is deliver a package over the US/Canadian border. Predictably, things go south fairly quickly when their contact, Alice (Jena Malone), holds the duo at gunpoint and forces them to smuggle the mysterious drugs inside their bodies, instructing the pair to message her once they pass the condom-wrapped contraband at a rest stop. They make it across the border but are confronted by a homophobic trucker, who accuses the two of cruising for sex and viciously punches Dom in the stomach. One of the condoms inside ruptures, releasing the drugs into his body and turning their drug run from a chance for easy money into a full-blown catastrophe.

Even with its subtle genre nods, Swallowed is a disappointingly tame and thoroughly dull work, the film’s brisk 95-minute runtime containing only the faintest traces of conviction, transgression, or even excitement really. Not only that, but the promised body horror angle — quite transparently included as a marketing gimmick — never coheres into anything substantive beyond some quick shots of wriggly weirdness, largely untethered from any apparent thematic preoccupations the film otherwise has. Its minimal, no-frills plot is executed with all the cinematic flair of a student film, and the script leans heavily into an unbecoming indie affect — sometimes bordering on the amateurish — that has been pestering American cinema for almost two decades at this point. Stilted dialogue and unconvincing performances aside, Smith’s direction rarely succeeds at generating any thrills from the decently intriguing premise he sets up for himself, and the story hits a complete dead end by the time the flamboyant, Joe Exotic-esque villain Rich (Mark Patton) enters the film.

Having made a name for himself as Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 — a film laden with homoerotic themes and subtext that, incidentally, the film’s screenwriter, David Chaskin, himself somehow didn’t pick up on – Mark Patton’s Rich is brought into the fold as a kind of big bad, a cut-throat drug dealer so ruthless that even the hard-nosed Alice is intimidated by him. Too bad, then, that Patton’s campy theatrics couldn’t be less threatening if he tried. His arrival spells doom for the already slender narrative, as the film grinds to a halt and never really gets going again, meandering about for what feels like hours until the end credits finally roll – intercut with a bizarre and out-of-place red carpet interview segment. The half-baked mind games between Benjamin and Rich that make up most of the third act, are devoid of any kind of tension or psychological depth, and the film barely limps over the finish line with a final confrontation that culminates in an old outhouse — a scene that really should’ve been way more satisfying, and a lot funnier, than it ends up being.

Even when judged as a small-scale DIY production, Swallowed is pared down to a fault and fails to sustain its bare-bones plot after a passable first half, devolving into a messy, clumsy, and overly campy slog. Smith’s attempt at telling an unabashedly queer horror story without resorting to representational pandering is admirable — especially given the level of self-importance and didacticism horror audiences are so often subjected to these days — but when the results are this unexciting, it hardly makes a difference.

Writer: Fred Barrett

Credit: Fantasia Fest

Special Delivery

Throughout the evolution of the action genre, the genesis of the getaway driver has evolved through different modes of iconic tight-knit narratives. Behind every heist, behind every journey revolving around the all-encompassing greed of the American dream, there is a driver. We’ve all seen the archetype — a typically timid role reserved for trauma-bent protagonists or one-off side characters. In their journey for a resurrective resolution lies the penance for their crimes. Who could forget the neon-bathed Americana of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, or the musically-entwined pastiche of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver? It’s a role often reserved for Men in most Western blockbusters, though some have dabbled with gender-swapping in their tales of electrifying embezzlement. To that end, the world can turn their eyes to South Korea and its latest popcorn thriller, Special Delivery. The film, as aptly suggested by its title, delivers its initial promise of a new genre twist revolving around the infamous archetype, whilst also supplementing its serviceable crime drama with a mysterious young heroine at its core.

Eun-ha (Park So-dam) sips on fizzy drinks as her wheels skid on railroad tracks. Her baseball cap is a shield; her foreign identity is stigmatized by a culture ignorant of her defectorship. The gear stick rests easily within her recycled vehicle. The getaway is but one meager exercise in her compact itinerary, wherein each day bears forth reward, further earnings from her burgeoning list of successful missions. Borrowing heavily from the genre lexicon in its octane-fueled tale of lawlessness, Park Dae-min’s latest feature recounts an eerily familiar story: police corruption, a sum of valued cash, and the typical underdog trappings devise the film’s substandard structure. Special Delivery checks all the boxes one would expect from a relatively mediocre action flick, while never elaborating nor delving deeper into the motivations of its shallow antagonists.

Elsewhere, the film’s stunning Busan vistas radiate fringes of neon-induced nausea, entrapping the corrupt police force in a cat-and-mouse thriller within the realm of metropolitan waste. But through the dingy alleyways and the underbelly of fast-food chains & rolling dice, the film’s most alluring attraction remains its central archetype. At its core, Park So-dam gracefully resuscitates a predictable blockbuster with her entrancing performance. Coming after her turn in Bong Joon-ho’s globally-influential Parasite, it was bound to be that she would receive her first major role after such a monumental success, and her character and accompanying character work are by far the saving grace amidst Special Delivery’s action anonymity.

At the crux of her middling narrative conflict is an affecting internal turmoil. We experience Eun-ha’s battle with the apostasy of her North Korean identity and her troublesome relationship with the South Korean state. Indeed, the political text of Park’s film is engrossing, and So-dam injects enough charisma and wit into her complex character to highlight such nuances. Her shy smile and her stringent posture both communicate her emotional vulnerability. The film places Eun-ha in various human conflicts: a relationship with a young orphan child blossoms within the film’s junkyard of automobile carnage. As the bullets rain and the cars begin to drift, Special Delivery arrives at its final destination with standard service. The film’s packages are secured, and we’re met with the graceful arrival of a 3-star review from the consumer; safely delivered without a minute to lose.

Writer: David Cuevas

My Small Land

In some respects, My Small Land is a film about easily perceived material differences. Sarya (Lina Arashi) holds herself at a distance from others; she clips off, in conversation, all the parts of her personality and family background that could mark her as different; she does not want to be identified, and all this marks her as a typical young protagonist in a coming-of-age narrative. As many would prefer to have it, a bildungsroman is complete when this distance is closed, when the distance between the perceptions one has of the world and of the self dissolve. But in Emma Kawawada’s debut feature, this kind of progress is impossible.

Sarya and her family are Kurds living in Japan’s Saitama prefecture. Their status as refugees is under review, and early on, the review concluded, they are informed of their application’s uncontestable rejection. Rather than a generic sense of a double life common to all teenaged experience, Sarya’s experience of the world is regulated, in a finely detailed way, by these legal structures: her freedom of movement, post-graduation plans, and working life are suddenly abstractions that can be controlled from without.

Kawawada, whose apprenticeship as a director has been informed by her connection to Bun-buku, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s production company, is working with material that usually gets transformed into a kind of case study. In Kore-eda’s own Nobody Knows, a particularly revealing reference point for Kawawada’s film, the improvisational spirit of children is leeched over time, becoming a horrifying, distant portrait of neglect. Kore-eda’s approach, he said at the time, was to make a film that would give its audience the unavoidable impression that they must “take away something” from the film. In this manner of narrative construction, immersion in the lives of the young and unprotected is a tool to develop a kind of education, one that extends but never leaves behind the film’s origin point as a newspaper story: the careful distance; the realistic, transcribed dialogue; the arc leading toward a diagnosis.

Kawawada’s method, though it shares with Kore-eda a measured tone and humanist dimension, is not guided by the inevitability of a lesson; instead, she pays particular attention to Sarya’s way of testing her environment. Despite her desire to disappear into her home country, it’s precisely this will that makes her stand out. When, due to government restrictions, the family’s situation deteriorates, Kawawada, knowing she has already constructed a scenario where the slightest word or deed is fraught with implications, does not develop writerly tension or overblown conflict, but, through careful disorganization of Sarya’s routines, shows how her education, her dreams, and her desire to connect are constructions of leisure time, which the polite fronts of immigration officers and landlords are intent on stealing away.

It’s true that Sarya’s family “teaches” her potential love interest, Sōta (Daiken Okudaira), about their culture (he is introduced via the veiled role of a partner for a class project). At times the narrative momentum is comfortable never moving beyond a holding pattern, and a late development involving Sarya’s younger brother seems misjudged. But in Kawawada’s arrangement of scenes (shot by Drive My Car cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya), Sarya is not given relief or tragic summation for an external audience’s understanding. The film’s motivations are internalized so that, even as there is the requisite moment when previously thwarted meaning is exchanged between Sarya and her father, the movie’s lasting impressions are something closer to the Doinel interview at the end of The 400 Blows.

What is powerful in My Small Land is not the message it could be said to be communicating (about identity, about immigration), but the way Kawawada has developed our ability to follow the connections Sarya is making. That is to say, that if at first we might be able to pinpoint her emotions and her position as a young adult, by the end we should be able to see, rather than the contours of her legal existence, the creative capacities that she is constantly defending until they can better test the limits imposed upon her.

Writer: Michael Scoular

Credit: Fantasia Fest

Just Remembering

Daigo Matsui’s Just Remembering features two characters who love Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. At least, they love the first section and, specifically, Winona Ryder’s cab driver who wants to be a mechanic and not a movie star. It also features Masatoshi Nagase, who starred in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train and has a prominent cameo in Paterson. But Just Remembering is not a Jarmusch-style movie. It’s a light romantic drama with a structural twist that places just enough emphasis on character and mood that you can see how it might be a film by someone who enjoys Jim Jarmusch’s movies, but himself has a much poppier sensibility than Jarmusch’s punky form of artistry. That said, as light romantic dramas go, it’s a pretty good one.

The film follows Teruo (Sosuke Ikematsu), a dancer turned stage lighting operator, across several of his birthdays, in particular tracing the course of his relationship with Yo (Sairi Ito), a cab driver who just wants to be a cab driver. The twist is that the birthdays come in reverse chronological order, from the present back to 2015 or so. Almost all the action takes place on these July 26s, and we see Teruo rise and fall based on small actions in his morning routine (feeding his cat too much — the cat shrinks as time goes backwards) and forgetting to pray at the statue he walks by on his way to work when things are bad; stretching to light music in his immaculately clean apartment when things are good. Some people he barely remembers in the future we see him meet, or merely pass by in the past. One recurring figure is Nagase, who waits every morning of every July 26 for his wife. What starts as tragedy turns to joy as time moves backward.

Both actors are quite good: Ikematsu has a quiet melancholy backed by the minimalist grace of a dancer, while Ito has an incredible smoker’s voice and a seriousness in her eyes that undermines the quirky stereotype her character could have been in a more generic film. The opening scenes are Covid-specific: we see the leads in their masks, checking temperatures before entering rooms. Two and a half years in, this image is still unnerving — even more so when we jump back to less disease-ridden times. What serves as the inciting incident of the series of flashbacks is a glimpse Yo has of Teruo in the present. This sends us on our journey through the past, seeing them apart and moving on, then breaking up, then together and happily planning for the future, beginning their relationship and then meeting cute. It all seems inevitable, two people meant for each other in the purest movie romance sense. Everything seems inevitable when you look at it backward. But that’s not how time really moves.

Writer: Sean Gilman

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

It’s easy to synopsize the minimal plot of the bizarre new South Korean whatsit The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra — fungus growing on a mattress becomes sentient and begins attacking people — but it’s extremely difficult to describe how the film actually functions. Neither an absurdist, Dada-esque comedy a la Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber nor a Frank Henenlotter-like gore fest, it’s instead a dreamy, woozy reverie of a film, a somber chronicle of lost souls seeking connections and fumbling about in this great big world. Writer-director-editor Park Sye-young seems to have transcribed a half-forgotten dream, the kind of deeply idiosyncratic feat of imagination that ultimately suggests a metaphor for existence itself. Or something like that, maybe. It’s hard to say.

Structured around a series of discrete vignettes, Park counts down to the “birth” of this strange biological mass via time-stamped dates, from 560 days before birth to 600-odd days after, filling in the timeline with montages and jump cuts. A young couple introduces us to the mattress; she’s a scientist of some sort who lulls her narcoleptic boyfriend to sleep with details of her deep-diving expeditions. Their relationship seems to crumble over the course of a year or so, with the mattress growing green mold and spores that the duo barely notice. Eventually, something pricks the boyfriend in the back, and they dump the mattress out on the street. Some workers use it to rest on while on break, before they too feel an odd sensation on their backs. The object then somehow makes its way to a hotel room, where another couple is in the midst of breaking up. Next, the mattress appears in a hospice, where a dying woman sleeps on it and seems to sense that something is growing. She speaks to it as if it is her confessor, reading it letters and preparing for her own impending death.

It’s here that the creature is revealed to be more than just mold and a stinger, taking on a more recognizable form. Far from a traditional “creature feature,” despite a positively grotesque soundtrack full of cracks and squishy pops and guttural groans, its final form shifts the film squarely into allegorical territory. But it’s an aloof, mysterious allegory, which only becomes stranger once the mattress goes on a journey of its own with a lonely truck driver. There’s something here about life and love and organic cycles; Park shoots in mostly tight close-up with an extremely shallow depth of field, lights and textures melding together into abstract pools of amorphous blobs a la Wong Kar-wai, or, perhaps more precisely, Josephine Decker. At barely 60 minutes long, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is barely a sketch, a kind of poetic utterance that moves in fits and starts charting a cosmic rebirth that finds a haunting coda 2,000 years in the future. The final result is a small-scale wonder, as unique an object as one is likely to find, even at a festival that embraces the gleefully strange with the enthusiasm of Fantasia.

Writer: Daniel Gorman