The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (2021) + Cashbag

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, transcript of introduction to a screening for the London Korean Film Festival 2022

‘Thoracic’ is one of those highly technical, slightly pedantic words, like ‘synecdoche’ or ‘symbiopsychotoxiplasm’, whose specialised obscurity ensures that its appearance in a title makes an immediate impression of a certain eccentricity. When you settle down to watch a film called The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, you just know that you are entering cinematic terra incognita. Sure enough Park Sye-young’s feature follows its own idiosyncratic pulses and rhythms – not least because its principal ‘character’ is a colony of mold growing on a mattress. So without further ado, let’s talk fungi.

Made up of yeasts, molds and mushrooms, this biological kingdom has a complex symbiotic relationship with the otherwise separate plant kingdom. Fungi form mycorrhizal networks with plants’ root systems under the forest floor – and owing to the similarity of these intertwining root systems to the online ethernet through which we humans now connect with each other across the world, biologists have given mycorrhizal networks the nickname Wood Wide Web. Fungi also, of course, have complex relations with humans. They can nourish us or poison us, we use them variously as cultures, antibiotics and pesticides, and they are sometimes incorporated for their mind-altering properties in religious or recreational rites of passage. In short, mushrooms play an important part in our own species’ history. It might even be said that, for all our differences, we have co-evolved

There is a small but significant body of horror films that chart and exploit our peculiar connection with this ancient biological kingdom. The first of these films, Ishiro Honda’s Matango, made in 1963, is about an island’s mushrooms which, once irradiated by nuclear testing, have a radical mutagenic effect on any person who eats them. More recently there has been a veritable explosion of mushroom movies: Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms (2007), Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015), Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts (2016), Arseny Syuhin and Sergey Torchilin’s Superdeep (2020), Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia (2021) and Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth (2021) all show mysterious, often hostile interactions between fungus and human. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra certainly falls into this category, as it traces the ‘birth’ and evolution of a mattress-borne mold whose tendrils painfully extract a part of the spine from anyone who comes near it so that it can slowly build itself from these stolen bones into a distorted mirror image of its prey, like Eve formed from Adam’s rib.

“You’re not afraid of time, are you?” says a removalist at the beginning of the film. He is speaking into a mobile phone to his client, and is annoyed that, having delivered a mattress on time outside an apartment building, there is no one there to let him in as arranged. So he and his colleague leave, abandoning the mattress outside in the light falling snow, and this, we infer, is how the mattress, now briefly exposed to the damp and dirt outside, acquires its mold.

The delivery guy’s preoccupation with time is shared by Park’s film, which regularly punctuates its episodes with date- and time-stamps, as well as countdown indications of how many days it is before or after the ‘birth’ of the fungus. Events start on the tenth of December in the year 2000, expressly 538 days before the birth, and then a rapid montage of the mattress, now lying in the mess of a young couple’s apartment and lives, moves the film quickly forward to the day of birth. It is as though the first year and a half of this couple’s relationship, from the time that they first move in together, is being shown to us from the point of view of an organism that is operating on an altogether different, much slower time scale. In the different sections of this film, significant moments in human experience – getting together, breaking up, imminent birthdays, death – are important only insofar as they bring people in proximity to the mattress and its mutating, assimilating, anthropomorphising fungus, which is not human, which runs to its own very inhuman timeline and which witnesses the world from its own unique ringside (bedside? waterside?) perspective.

There are aspects of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra that recall George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), but if it is like those films, that is in part paradoxically because, just like them, it is entirely sui generis. For although this melancholic, monstrous romantic (and anti-romantic) slasher is a hybrid horror experiment, its utterly gonzo premise eventually drifts downstream to an ending whose sadness, mystery and awe may catch you by surprise in their elegiac impact. 

The first owner of the mattress says to her live-in boyfriend, “People were throwing away their secrets into the river – from there the secrets flow to the end of the river.” The film will also end at a river, and with a secret. Indeed, much as it begins with a mattress delivered when its recipient is not there, this is a film whose message – about life, about mortality, about what it means to be human and to have been loved – comes tragically belated, and from an utterly alien purview that somehow makes it all the more moving.

Episodic and abstract, and quite short in duration, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra comes nonetheless with a very unusual and expansive take on time, setting human dramas and dreams against a much broader, more irrational canvas of nature. Owing to its relative brevity (it is only 60 minutes), we will also be screening Park’s short film Cashbag, which follows a young man in a series of increasingly desperate nocturnal transactions as he tries to sell a number of his own items online in time to buy another desired item with the money that he raises. This is an overnight odyssey through street-level capitalism, where the worth of goods is entirely determined by market forces – and the whole thing ends, like the feature it accompanies, in a waterside location, a liminal place of fluidity and transience. Here nature reimposes its own enigmatic meaning and value, and ultimately both films shift their poignant focus to ephemerality and loss. I hope you enjoy them.

strap: Park Sye-young’s melancholic monster movie shows the human condition from a mold colony’s yearning perspective


My programme Note: With Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Possession (1981) and A Ghost Story (2017) as its nearest analogues, Park Sye-young’s experimental fungal slasher tracks a mattress, and the spores growing on it, as they pass through the hands of different owners and users, including lovers at different stages of their relationships and a terminally ill woman. As the fungus rapidly evolves and subtly apes the manners of its human hosts, it vampirically absorbs a vertebra from each to build itself into anthropomorphic form.

A melancholic, monstrous romantic horror with a very unusual take on time, this sets human dramas and dreams against a much broader, more irrational canvas of nature. Episodic and abstract, its utterly gonzo premise drifts to an ending of unexpected sadness and awe. Meanwhile Park’s (non-horror) short Cashbag, which follows a man in a series of nocturnal transactions, ends in a similar waterside location.

© Anton Bitel