Peafowl is that formulaic film of the black sheep of the family returning to encounter their complicated familial past after the death of a loved one. Yet Sunghin Byun’s film tells its tale in such a profoundly caring and beautiful way that it supersedes everything. A wonderful and memorable film
A transgender Korean woman who has been living and working in Seoul as a dancer must deal with her father’s passing and the expectations placed on her to take part in a traditional, gendered memorial dance.
After failing to achieve the top prize of a dance contest to aid in financing their gender-affirming surgery before she is listed for the compulsory Korean army draft, Myung (Hae-jun) is told the decision was made because they couldn’t see her in the performance, effectively there was no heart or soul in the moves. However, there is so much more in the meaning of the answer from that judge; Myung may know who they are and her aspirations. But to have fled her hometown and her family to achieve a life as a woman has meant those apparent inner demons are eating at her on the inside.
So, when we get to the nearly 6-minute finale, we finally see her formed, able to fully be themselves not only to those around her but to her dead father and grandfather during the memorial dance. Her smile becomes as wide as it ever could. We see someone step out of the shadows and show everyone who they are. Sure, she was already like that to those around her. Still, there was a wall up that was blocking the emotions from really coming in. She focused too much on the money of her inheritance and not on the importance of what it meant to be herself and be welcomed as herself as she performed that memorial dance.
Peafowl has a lot of special moments like that, moments that make the film rise from the usual narrative that it inhabits. Having a character be a black sheep from the family, thanks to that family’s own prejudice, is such a strong concept. We never expect all the characters to be welcoming to Myung, but adding in these little notes about her family’s past allows for the film to successfully allow for the ending it provides. Does it have to be realistic? Nah, not when the performances are so strong. Sometimes, having a slightly unrealistic but happy ending is the perfect choice, and Peafowl gives us that.
What makes Peafowl stand out is that we have a character who suddenly is unsure of themselves or covers how they looks as a transgender woman as soon as she returns home. Oh no, with Myung, she commands your attention. She is not daunted by what those may think of her, not the living anyway. So, when her small village begrudgingly accepts her for who she is now when her uncle Uk-do is not around, you create an interesting dynamic.
Hae-jun owns Peafowl. For as strong as Myung is, Hae-jun isn’t afraid to let that vulnerable side of her character come through the immaculate presence she has conjured. It allows for the audience to feel for a character who has built up a wall around everyone she knows for fear they will treat her like her father did. You feel for her while simualtaeniously being frustrated at her when she doesn’t take the olive branches being offered all around her. We could talk forever about the dancing portion of Hae-juns performance, but it’s the acting side that truly grabs you, making Hae-jun one hell of a performer.
There are some limitations to Peafowl, one being its budget; in another world, the opening dance-off scene would be on a great stage with a large audience present. Instead, it is in this tiny space and looks that touch too cheap. However, do not be deterred as once we break away from there and the bar, Sunghin Byun gives his film space for his cast and cinematographer, Hae-in Kim, to produce some moments of magic.
Peafowl focuses a lot on trauma; the trauma Myung still feels from what she experienced is the central thread that the film takes, but there is trauma in the village, too. Characters who want to reveal their true identity refrain from doing so because they saw how the patriarchs took it with Myung. Some even want to be welcoming to Myung again but have to do so secretly because of how Uk-do will respond. This comes from how parts of South Korea are still so traditional in the mindset, not yet as open as the urban sides of the country and Sunghin Byun captures that difference in societies within his own country so well.
Most places or villages will have someone like Myung and even Woo-ji, a person estranged from their family and village because they finally found, or had the courage to be their true selves. What Byun does with his script is show us a world where after a bit of understanding and learning, that people can become more open to the choices people they care for make regarding their gender or sexuality. He wants to create a welcoming environment in this village, to show that it is possible and becoming more the norm throughout his country. So, we get the moment with Myung and Uk-do, characters who at the start were polar opposites, venture more to the middle due to what they have experienced. Is it a bit idealistic? Perhaps, but it is a beautiful one that we can resonate with.
Queer East Festival 2023 nationwide tour takes place October to December in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds and more cities to be announced. More information at: https://queereast.org.uk/
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