Park Sye-young talks The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

One of my pet peeves is that there aren't enough younger film directors around, even though they are supposed to be the future of the medium. Their voices are sorely missed, so I was delighted when Park Sye-young returned my request for an interview. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is one of my favorite watches of 2024 so far, and I had quite a few questions after finishing it. If you want to hear about the true inspiration behind the film, how hard it is to make a feature film as a young director, and what you can expect from Park Sye-young next, do read on.

Park Sye-young talks The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra

Niels Matthijs: How difficult was it to make this film, being such a young director? Were there any funding programs you could fall back on? Anything or anyone else willing to help out?

Park Sye-young: I’d never received any sort of funding to make a film. Not for lack of trying but simply because I’ve never made it past the first rounds of funding applications. I guess that this is because either I’m a lousy writer or the films I make seem too experimental for funding. Anyhow, since I still wanted to make films and was not born rich, I started to work as a cinematographer, editor, and director on other people's films, commercials, and all sorts of work that needed a camera. I would save up the money I earned from working all sorts of jobs for 11 months and then use whatever I’d saved up to make films. These were all mostly short films for a couple of years and the budget, aspirations grew each year until I decided I’d like to try and make a film that's longer than 60 minutes.

You're not just the director of the film, you are also credited for almost all the major creative functions (from writing to cinematography and editing). How important is it for you to have that type of control?

I don’t think I can say doing all of these roles started from the desire to have control. Rather I had a very small budget and most of the crew and actors were friends. I decided to hold the camera because firstly, I did not have the money to incorporate a whole camera crew (my crew consisted of two major departments: the production design team and my team, consisting of a hybrid form of a.d.’s and p.d.’s as well as most of the camera crew working together with me in the a.d department). I edited the film because of the same reasons as above. I did not have the leisure to shoot a lot of diverse angles or takes because of budgetary problems. The main shoot was 6 days, and I spent an additional 10+ days shooting by myself or with 1-2 people helping throughout the course of editing. This hybrid, messy way of making the film stemmed mostly from the budget and my decision to reduce the amount of labor my friends had to do since I could not pay them as much as I wanted to.

For the audience, it's often quite charming and magical when a director handles almost everything on his own, but how stressful is it when you actually have to carry all that weight?

The stress I felt making this film mostly stemmed from being unable to provide my team with great food. I was making my film. I was content with that and I knew we were working on a very tight schedule with a script that did not really reflect that. I anticipated that the film would not look the way I wanted it to and I guess, looking back at it now, almost 3+ years since shooting it, I tried to embrace the spontaneity of the set, the problems I encountered, etc. The editing process took about a year or so because of this and since I did not have a time limit, I think the actual assembly of the narrative took place during this time. Since editing fortunately does not use up money.

Why do you think South Korea seems to excel at big-budget blockbusters and smaller arthouse fare, but it seems to struggle when it comes to more distinctive genre films?

I do not really know the industry as I’ve never been a part of it but I’m guessing nontraditional ways of making films are not really encouraged or backed up enough for people to attempt diverse ways of filmmaking. I personally did not imagine that my film would get distribution or a theatrical domestic release and I think getting into international film festivals helped a lot which is a bit ironic in a sense where to be shown domestically, the film had to travel the world first.

While watching your film, I got Tsukamoto meets Dupieux vibes from it, but what were your actual sources of inspiration?

The initial inspiration for the film came when watching Bresson’s films over the course of a weekend. The simplicity and emotional strength of a simple touch of the hands stayed with me for a very very long time. I wanted to make a film that leads up to a simple hand-touch-hand gesture as the climax. I started from this image and then worked backward to make the rest of the movements and actions of the film.

How difficult is it to come up with original concepts these days, when pretty much everything has been made already?

I don’t know if I can answer this question properly as I don’t really think my film is original. The script was 10 pages long and comprised of very short instances spread throughout Korea that all end with an interaction with a bed. This felt very formulaic to me and the language of the film mostly stems from the obstacles I met during the shoot. Take for instance the motel scene. I originally wanted to shoot the creature's ‘hand’ taking the people's bones from 5 different, very delicately planned shots but when we got to set, the practical prosthetics fell apart and the production designer told me we could only shoot one take before the prosthetic would be unusable. We had to come up with a totally different sequence and I don’t think it went that well. Luckily I had a year to edit and tried to cover up our mistakes while making it not evident that I was covering up my mistakes which ended up resulting in a distinctive rhythm to the edit. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the whole film is a result of stitching together what was left of our shattered plans and then trying really hard to make them work to a certain extent.

Is this the type of film you'd love to keep making, or is it mostly more out of necessity that you ended up making this little indie/genre gem?

I made this film because I felt I had to. I would love to stop making films with my money and be responsible for other people's money. I will keep making films my way until I am given an opportunity to shoot with other people's money and by then, I hope to be able to make back their money as well as making the film my way (to a certain extent).

The editing and cinematography were by far my favorite part of the film, where did you pick up those skills?

During my years at university, I think I spent more time shooting other people's films/projects and editing them than I did in class. I learned a lot from this experience. Mostly communication skills as well as technical things but the former, I believe is much more important in getting a great image than the latter.

While I think the music is great and very fitting, it doesn't always match the intensity of the visuals. Did you tone it down for a specific reason, or did you want that bit of contrast between the two?

I’ve never thought about it this way. I actually think the opposite: that the visuals are not as intense as the sound. Interesting.

The cast was really good for an indie film. How did you go about casting them and where did you find the actors?

Most of the actors are friends. Most of these friends are musicians that I met a couple of years ago. Most of them have appeared in my short films (they had no aspirations to act) and have constantly reappeared in my films. Some of them have made music for my films, some help with the camera, some, I work with together.

What's next for Park Sye-young?

I’m currently in post-production for a film called ‘The Fin’. It’s been almost two years since I shot it and I think we might edit till the end of this year. As for my other projects, I don’t want to jinx myself by talking about them because they could get canceled anytime. I currently live away from Seoul and am planning to move back next week. I dislike living in the city but everything is centered around it so I realized it’s hopeless to live away from the city while trying to make a living (at least for now). I hope to find some way to distance myself from the hectic, unnerving life that awaits me.

What if you were given carte blanche for your next film project? No budget constraints, and no producers looking over your shoulders. What would you make?

I think I’d still make the same films I’m planning to make right now but with better wages for the people working with me and most importantly better food and better COFFEE!