I’m struggling to think of another film that resembles The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, a South Korean film about a dangerous fungus that grows from a festering mattress and soon becomes more and more threatening. The film, which made its international debut Friday at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, gets creepy points for the visuals and sound effects used to bring this slithery antihero to life. And while there are some slow spots — you’re watching fungus grow, after all — the ones that linger are those that emphasize the humanity in small moments.
If the debut film from Syeyoung Park reminded me of anything, it was Upstream Color, which followed the life cycle of a parasite. But Upstream Color has a detached coldness, and The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae tells the most emotional story it can, given that its lead character is born of mold. It has a tight running time of just over an hour, and Park, a prolific creator of short films, deserves credit for not feeling pressured to go longer and outstay the film’s welcome. It’s a testament to his artistry that he chose to serve his story rather than stretch it out for the sake of a more conventional running time.
The film made its debut at the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea, where it won the Best Director and Audience Award, as well as a distribution prize. But it’s also a perfect Fantasia film: It’s very imaginative, challenging at times, but most importantly completely unafraid to take risks. It’s a perfect fit for a festival where audiences embrace boldness.
Three set pieces especially stand out — as does the gorgeous, deeply moving ending. One of the set pieces, when the fungus breaks out of the mattress, thanks to a couple’s extreme mistreatment, goes for gross-out thrills and succeeds.
But two others, involving love and death, rely very little on the monster — the film asks: is the fungus even a monster? — and focus instead of the small tragedies and simple joys that take us from day to day. Put together enough of these micro-moments and you have not just a lifecycle, but a life.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is now at the Fantasia Film Festival.
Main image: The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra