The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

2022 / 62m - South Korea
Horror, Fantasy
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra poster

The more films you watch, the more you realize there's an endless stream of films you'll never get around to seeing. And so you focus your attention on certain areas of cinema, the ones with the biggest chance of yielding positive results. South Korea is a country I tend to skip most of the time, so I never would've noticed Park Sye-young's The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra were it not for an attentive reader who recommended the film to me. I'll be forever grateful he did because this is exactly the type of work I adore. So don't be making the same mistake as I did and get your hands on this film as quickly as possible.

screencap of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

While many are attracted to South Korean cinema, there's a significant void in their output when it comes to indie/genre work with an auteur's touch. They lack directors like Takashi Miike, or Sion Sono, which is exactly where my sweet spot is. Their blockbusters are slick and they have decent arthouse output, but that's not where my heart lies, and so I often end up overlooking South Korean cinema unless it is explicitly recommended to me. Luckily, people are starting to understand my taste in films, because this film, made by a 27-year-old director, was an absolute delight.

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra feels like a contemporary take on the cyberpunk aesthetic that kickstarted the careers of Gakuryu Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto. It's more vibrant and not quite as intense, but that particular gritty punk essence is very much present, staking everything on mood and style rather than worrying too much about presenting a coherent narrative. It's also more of a horror/fantasy take, then again those Japanese films were never all that cyber to begin with. Add to that the youthful energy that comes with a focused young director wanting to prove himself, and you have all the ingredients for a stellar film.

The plot is somewhat conceptual, with an obvious deeper layer present, but it's also just about a mattress that harasses people. It gives the film a slight Quentin Dupieux vibe, only the plot isn't handled as an absurd comedy or a shlocky horror flick. The mattress (or at least the mold within) seems sentient and feeds on the people who lie on top of it. Because its moldy exterior is quite gross the mattress gets to travel around quite a bit, finding different victims and nicking their titular fifth thoracic vertebrae (a bone which is part of the spine) to resurrect itself.

screencap of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

With a film like this, where mood is probably the primary concern, the cinematography has a crucial role to play. It makes the difference between a cheesy horror and an entrancing atmospheric experience, and Park seemed to be well aware. The film is shot with a gritty digital filter, the colors burst from the screen and the editing plays an important part in defining and guiding the visual rhythm of the film. Sometimes it lingers, at other times it rushes, but it always feels deliberate. It's an absolute stunner if you dig its gritter style, but it's not going to be for everyone.

The soundtrack is good and fitting, but maybe a bit more on the safe side. Park relies on synth-based electronic music to set the mood, shifting to ominous, more dark ambient-like backings to support the horror moments. These work very well with the visual style and they're effective in establishing the mood, but they're also the go-to choices, and where Park seemed to push the envelope in other departments, the score feels a little less adventurous. It's not bad, far from it, but I think he could've gotten more out of it, especially with a film that isn't all that accessible in the first place.

I have nothing bad to say about the performances, but with a film like this, I usually don't pay them too much attention. Since we're following the mattress around most actors only have a relatively small role to play, and while they do proper jobs (can't fault any of them) none of them left an indelible impression. I will say that they all seemed eager enough to be making the most of their screen time, which isn't always the case when watching more mood-centered movies, but in the end, I felt this win was relatively small. Still, kudos to the cast for doing a solid job.

screencap of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

The film is rather episodic, but I guess that might have made things a little easier on Park. He is free to explore several settings and stories within the span of a single film and he doesn't have to worry too much about narrative complexity, as the premise with the mattress is pretty self-explanatory and it's obvious from the start where this story is going. For a young director, this is a perfect setup to show his worth and versatility in a short time span, and he used that to his advantage. Despite being divided into different episodes, the film still feels cohesive and singular.

Films like these don't come around very often. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the work of someone with a clear vision, the talent to execute it, and the business savvy (or plain relentlessness) to bring a project like this to fruition. It's a neat mix of indie, arthouse, and horror elements, and it's nice to finally see South Korea venture in this direction. I'll be keeping my eye on Park, he seems like the kind of director who will be able to build on this success, but even if he never makes another film, it's good to know he at least contributed one masterpiece.