A trans woman begins to step into herself after reclaiming her traditional culture to make peace with the past in Byun Sung-bin’s poignant indie drama, Peafowl (공작새, Gongjaksae). At once situating itself in the heartland of a society struggling to adapt to the pace of change, the film suggests that only by reintegrating her Koreanness can the heroine become fully herself even as the spirit of the father who rejected her softly tells her to dance her dance.
Myung (Choi Hae-jun), whose name as she later says means “not too light not too dark”, is a trans woman living in Seoul hoping to earn a large amount of money to pay for her surgery through winning a waacking dance competition. Shortly before she performs, she receives an unsettling telephone call and narrowly loses the dance off against a Taiwanese competitor while a judge explains that she lacks a colour of her own. It’s then that a childhood friend, Woo-gi (Kim Woo-kyum), contacts her to let her know that her estranged father Duk-gil (Ki Joo-bong) has passed away and asks her to come to the funeral. Myung first says she won’t go, but later does only to be berated by her overbearing, conservative uncle who ironically causes a scene by loudly exclaiming that a man shouldn’t be going around with long hair or wearing makeup. He even introduces her as Duk-gil’s son to an older relative who is otherwise much more sympathetic and even asks her with surprise why she’s wearing a male mourning outfit rather than the more appropriate one for women.
It’s the uncle, a symbol of oppressive middle-aged patriarchal power, that is the real problem. Most other people are either broadly supportive or too polite to say anything of Myung’s changed appearance while her teenage nephew Bo-suk (Go Jae-hyun) simply accepts her and quickly refers to Myung as “sis” despite his mother’s obvious discomfort. It is however the uncle who is in charge, continuing to misgender and insult Myung especially once Woo-gi reveals that it was Duk-gil’s dying wish for Myung to lead the funerary rites at his 49th day memorial service. Myung doesn’t really want to participate but is tempted after Woo-gi suggests there’s a sizeable inheritance to be had if she agrees.
It’s clear that Myung had good reason to resent her father, holding up her hand and revealing a large burn scar she’s since had tattooed with with a beautiful peacock feather. The feather motif is repeated throughout as a kind of symbol of Myung’s hidden beauty which she will eventually learn to reveal through the fusion of the traditional art of shamanistic ritual and her contemporary waacker dance moves, yet it’s also linked to the image of her father as a man she never understood and may never have really known whose relationship with her was shaped by the legacy of homophobic prejudice in ways she could never have imagined. The truth that she discovers reminds her that there have always been people like her even within this very “traditional” society, while the twin revelation that her cousin is gay and struggling in many of the same ways she has proves there always will be. As Woo-gi reminds her, her grandfather’s tree looks like it’s dead but is kept alive by its connections with others much like people are, pointing out that rituals accept everyone without prejudice or exception.
Only after making peace with her conflicted aunt and showing her overbearing uncle the error of his ways can Myung begin to reclaim herself in reintegrating her traditional culture to gain the colour she was lacking and become fully herself as she performs the ritual along with a waacker dance that quite literally sets fire to the oppressive quality of tradition as mediated by men like her uncle who weaponise it to preserve their own privilege. Shot in classic 4:3, Byun neatly contrasts the vibrancy of Seoul nightlife with the oppressive dullness of life in the village, but also highlights the various similarities in the colour and noise of a shamanistic ceremony which as Myung discovers moves to a beat not dissimilar to waacker as she watches her friends dance in a club with the movements of traditional shamanism. In a way, Myung does indeed burn it all down but does so positively, finally coming to an understanding of her father and her history while reclaiming her traditional culture along with the right to do with it whatever she wishes.
Peafowl screened as part of BFI Flare 2023. It will also be screening at Genesis Cinema, London on April 20 as part of this year’s Queer East.
Trailer (English subtitles)