A strange fungus growing on an old mattress slowly takes human form while feeding on loneliness and misery in Park Sye-young’s melancholy experimental feature, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae (다섯 번째 흉추, daseos beonjjae hyungchu). The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae is near enough the one closest to the heart, and the one the growing creature is prone to rip out of its unsuspecting victims as it travels towards its uncertain evolution. Yet there is a strange sort of wistfulness that accompanies the mattress’ journey as if a new world were being born, one birthed in pain and anguish but with a yearning for love and connection even in the depths of its loneliness.
The mattress is to begin with one purchased by a young couple about to move in together but soon becomes a symbol of their doomed love. While the mattress leans against a pillar outside an apartment building, a rude removal man swears at the young woman on the phone apparently unable to gain access. The boyfriend was supposed to let them in, but as we discover he’s fallen asleep and the girl must now abandon her plans to carry the mattress up the stairs herself and position it around his sleeping body. The film had explained to us that we are still some days away from the creature’s birth but we can soon see spores collecting on the mattress as a symbol of the relationship’s demise. When the couple finally break up, the boyfriend notices the mould but simply flips the mattress over as if that will solve all of his problems.
Slowly but surely, the mattress travels all around the contemporary society in which many are it seems remarkably unfussy about the condition of a mattress they do not intend to sleep on themselves. It first ends up in a love hotel where it witness another breakup, resentment between the lovers soon giving way to sorrow and finally neediness as they consent to part. Now grown enough in strength the mattress creature rips out their vertebrae though it’s unclear whether it does so to relive them of their pain or merely to consume it.
Abandoned again by the irritated landlord cross with his customers for being too stuck up for a mattress which he thinks is perfectly fine if you just flip it over and forget about the admittedly “disgusting” growths on the underside, the creature finds a new home with a terminally ill woman who seems to have some kind of rare disease which requires her isolation though seemingly because of some kind of stigma rather than for any medical cause. It’s distressing to think that anyone would give such a soiled, unsanitary thing to a dangerously ill woman though she seems to have become aware of the creature and views it almost as a friend reaching out in her own loneliness and charging it with a letter for her daughter she fears the nurses will otherwise burn with her body. It seems they do not burn the mattress, but seek to get rid of it while recommending it be purified through exorcism but of course the removal people are far too cheap for that.
In any case, the mattress creature soon finds an affinity with the van driver who is celebrating his 37th birthday alone on the road with a sad slice of cake and a single candle while listening to teach yourself English tapes in search of meaningful connections. Perhaps it makes sense that along with sweat, dead skin, and other things we unknowingly shed, we leak sadness and pain into a space of comfort and safety feeding a creature of loneliness and desire with the physical remnants of our emotional selves. What survives of us is less love than its unanswered call, an undeliverable letter becoming a sort of holy text for a new form of life that may long survive us. Filmed with a dreamy poeticism and sudden shocks of eeriness in its ominous lighting and sci-fi score, Park’s oneiric drama nevertheless beats with a melancholy pulse of frustrated desire in which all connection is fleeting and love births only loneliness in a world in which a mattress knows us best of all.
Trailer (English subtitles)