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.
DIRECTOR: Syeyoung Park; CAST: Jihyeon Park, Hyein Moon, Seokyoung Haam; STREAMING: October 20; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 2 min.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 3.