2022 Fantasia Fest: Love is a moldy, decaying affair in ‘The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra’
Right at the beginning of South Korean director Syeyoung Park’s The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, a young woman tells her narcoleptic boyfriend about a shocking discovery she made in a nearby river. She and her team, she recalls, found an unusually high number of dead “dolphins” there, which bewildered the group. But when they conducted further investigations, those “dolphins” turned out not to be dolphins at all… but some other strange creatures. However, she never gets to finish the story, since her boyfriend falls asleep before she can finish telling it — whether that’s a result of his narcolepsy or boredom, we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s due to that indifference that the couple soon break up, and a monster is born from the molding, slowly fermenting mattress that they once owned together.
While it’s never explicitly stated in the film, those “dolphins,” are presumed to be unsuspecting humans who have fallen victim to the prying, grabby hands of a mold ghost — a presumably common folklorish creature that exists only in this universe. After the boyfriend throws the couple’s sporing mattress away, it soon makes its way throughout the city, quickly being passed from one person to the next. Within the city, we get glimpses of love in various stages through this monster’s gaze. There’s a troubled couple that is struggling to decide if they should break it off, there are young teenagers flirting and making out underneath it, and there are even unsuspecting coffee drinkers who happen to crouch too closely to the vengeful mattress… all of which end with the mold ghost snatching each person’s fifth thoracic vertebra, a part of the spine, away. Like the dolphins that are discovered in the river, these people are left gasping for air and crawling away off-screen to an unknown fate.
If all of this sounds incredibly wild conceptually, I’m glad to say that it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its execution.
Amusing and curious in every sense of the word, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra astonishes with the director’s attention to mood and detail in the overtly strange creation of his universe. Grimy and foul, it’s a world that seeps itself in sliminess and mold — further fueled by the horrific bodily thriftiness that people are capable of within its boundaries. Multiple people come across the visibly fungal mattress and declare it safe to use as long as it’s turned over. One person sleeps on it without throwing a bedsheet on it. Someone off-screen salvages it and lets their dying relative lay on it without second thought. Yet another person lugs it around like it’s a prize to be won. It’s no wonder that mold ghosts are able to spawn here!
Also doing some heavy lifting is the film’s queasy, sludgy score. A mutated, synthy edition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” hovers over a number of scenes (and is used very frequently), turning a once-beautiful lullaby into a nauseating haunt. Elsewhere, the film is accented by uncomfortably close heavy breathing that’ll be guaranteed to make you feel like you’re being watched. While nothing in the film is downright scary in the horror-movie jumpscare sort of sense, there’s a slow-burning, festering quality to it that lingers, making you long for some soap and a warm shower by the time the credits roll.
But while Park’s film does a fantastic job at world-building and teasing a new, folklorish monster, it falls a bit short as a narrative. We get introduced to too many opposing stories too quickly and too soon, hampered even further by the fact that it’s an extremely short hour-long film. At some points, it feels like a short film collection, with the only constant being love, and of course, a grabby mold ghost lurking in the corner. And the end, which reaches for that climactic, big-feeling ending, doesn’t quite pack the punch that it felt like the film was leading to. Even so, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, with all of those flaws, still manages to do its job of hypnotizing its viewer and transporting them into a less-sanitized world.
And if anything, it’s a film that can commend itself for being one of the rare cases where love doesn’t bloom — rather, it festers.
Rating: 4 / 5
This film was reviewed via digital screener as part of the virtual 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!