The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra
"Where it could easily have been gimmicky or relied on comedy, instead it achieves something magical and illuminating." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Did you know that the largest living organism in the world is a fungus? Covering approximately 3.7 square miles. this particular specimen of Armillaria ostoyae, of dark honey fungus, was unknown for a long time because the bulk of its body is underground, but it is thought to be as many as 1,500 years old.

Park Syeyoung’s inventive début, which got a special mention from the New Flesh jury at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, is the story of a fungus. Specifically, it is the story of a fungus which is born in a mattress in a scuzzy flat where a guy whose girlfriend has left him fails to keep anything tidy or clean. After it is dumped in the street, the mattress is spotted and retrieved for use in a love hotel, and in this manner, moving from one place to another, it comes into contact with a series of different people. The attentive fungus learns from them and, with increasing stealth and sensitivity, it steals pieces of their spines.

Despite the inherent creepiness of this concept, the fungus is not a monster in the conventional sense. There is no malice about what it does – it is simply eating, reaching out for life. In one case, sharing a bed with a dying woman, it forms a sort of friendship, remembering her last request, though it has limited means whereby to understand it. Through its adventures, we see something of the human world – one populated mostly by people who are broken in one way or another, or out to make a quick buck. At times, the fungus experiments with taking on aspects of human form (there’s a dokkaebi reference here which hints that such beings may have developed before), yet it never loses its essential nature, never takes on the full set of traits which it is curious about.

It’s difficult to tell a story from the perspective of something so different and carry it off. Park does a very impressive job, giving the film a strangely beautiful and poignant ending. At just over an hour long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but succeeds into offering an insight into a very different world which exists in parallel with out own. Despite its brutal premise, it’s low on gore, communicating a great deal through stains and simple, practical effects work. Where it could easily have been gimmicky or relied on comedy, instead it achieves something magical and illuminating.

A rare piece of truly creative, empathic cinema, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra may struggle to find a life beyond the festival circuit, but you should catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2022
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After a couple splits up, mould left behind on a mattress slowly grows into a creature that steals the vertebrae of humans who inhabit the bed.

Director: Park Syeyoung

Writer: Park Sye-young

Year: 2022

Runtime: 62 minutes

Country: South Korea

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