Review by Daniel Lima
There are few things quite as painful, or rewarding, as opening yourself up to others. The innate need to feel connected to the world around you is as basic as the need to breathe air and drink water, but attempting to form those connections necessitates an emotional vulnerability that can leave one irrevocably broken. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra literalizes that cycle of suffering and catharsis, examining that uniquely human instinct through a distinctly inhuman lens, and the result is strange, hypnotic, and incredibly moving.
Lacking a traditional narrative, the film follows a mattress that has become host to a strange fungus. As the bed trades hands throughout South Korea, it bears witness to some of the most intimate moments of its owners’ lives. Eventually, it begins to feed on their spines, gaining a degree of sentience as it feasts on its unwitting victims, and with it an understanding of what it is to be human.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra takes on the perspective of this alien entity, freewheeling through a series of disconnected vignettes, offering no more context to the viewer than that of the passive alien spectator. One scenario sees the bed as the final resting place of an ailing woman. In another, a shelter for a pair of young lovers eager to consummate their relationship. In another still, it is merely in transit, observing a man play out a lonely birthday on the road.
Each of the people who share the company of the mattress occupy a different place in the world, each with a complex web of goals, responsibilities, and connections. What they all share is that insatiable drive to form and maintain those connections; to love and be loved; to feel like they matter, if not to the universe at large, then to someone else. From that need springs passionate couplings, serene goodbyes, tumultuous breakups, and soul-piercing loneliness. Whether the result is anguish or ecstasy, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra explores all possible permutations, insisting that the pain is every bit as crucial as the joy.
If that was not apparent from the equal weight given to both, it would be from what the bed excises from its companions. Each inevitably finds themselves in utter agony, as the object they had taken for granted and granted access to their most private moments rips out the titular bone from their body. This bit of grisly body horror — complete with disgusting practical effects, nightmarish sound design, and revolting imagery as these morsels are digested — serves a purpose beyond shock. In rending the flesh of people who have unwittingly revealed so much of themselves, the fungus makes tangible the risks in allowing oneself to open to another. By the film’s end, it is made beautifully clear that even from such a torturous ordeal, the possibility for something new and wonderful to spring forth is ever present.
Delivering such a message, particularly in a movie that hews so closely to the perspective of a being that isn’t even in the animal kingdom, would be an arduous task even for a seasoned director. That this is the first feature from director Park Sye-young is astonishing. From the grounded realism of the scenes with the human characters, to the dreamlike magical realism when the mattress takes center stage, to the stomach-churning horror, there is an impressive control of tone and mood. A gorgeous synth score underlines the unearthly quality of what transpires, and sets are lit with garish neons, sickly pale green, and whatever else a given moment calls for. To see a director show this command of the craft on their first outing is incredibly exciting, and whatever he does next should be appointment viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is an experience unlike any this year: a seemingly ludicrous idea that strikes at something universal and incredibly powerful. Announcing a fascinating cinematic talent, it stands as one of the best films of 2023.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is now streaming on IndiePix Unlimited.