A trans woman returns to her rural home town in Byun Sung-bin’s assured debut
Dir: Byun Sung-bin. South Korea. 2022. 114mins
Writer-director Byun Sung-bin amply confirms the promise of award-laden 2020 short God’s Daughter Dances with his thematically-related debut feature Peafowl. Sympathetically tracing the travails of a fiery pre-op trans woman who travels from funky Seoul to the countryside for her father’s funeral, this is a confident, colourful and smart crowdpleaser which should parlay its Busan bow into a busy festival career (including but by no means restricted to LGBTQ+ showcases.)
Achieves an organic harmony of constituent parts under Byun’s assured control
Byun cast real-life Waacker-dancing star Choi Hae-jun (here billed simply as Hae-jun) as the lead in God’s Daughter Dances, in which a trans-female performer deals with being called up for military service in fabulously inventive fashion — Waacker a precursor of Voguing that dates back to the 1970s Los Angeles gay scene. Here Hae-jun is again compellingly front and centre as thirtyish Myung, who urgently needs cash to pay for gender-reassignment surgery.
While smarting from narrowly losing out in the dance-off final of a lucrative Waacker contest (which takes place in an implausibly subdued Seoul venue), Myung hears that her long-estranged, homophobic father has died suddenly back home in (fictional) Hochang. She turns up to his memorial in immaculate mourning drag, only to be immediately castigated by her old-school uncle Uk-do (Kim Jin-soo): “A man shouldn’t have such hair and makeup!” he blusters.
Myung receives a much warmer welcome from a local elder, from her aunty, and from her late father’s number two in the village’s traditional dance troupe, handsome Woo-ji (Hwang Jeong-min). Woo-ji informs Myung that her dad left her an unspecified financial inheritance — this pivotal plot-point is hazily handled — on the condition that she perform in the ceremony to mark the 49th day since his passing. Various twists and complications ensue before the big day, up until which it remains unclear whether Myung will actually take part.
Byun’s screenplay makes much of the secrets and hypocrisies which lie under Hochang’s unremarkable surfaces, knowingly skirting the edge of soapy small-town melodrama and developing several intersecting plotlines with blithe aplomb. Many of the script’s beats are familiar, starting with the “black sheep returns home for parent’s funeral” premise. And there is seldom much doubt about how things will be resolved.
But these are relatively minor cavils, easily forgiven amid the general air of breezy exuberance and Byun’s spirit of generous inclusivity. Crucially, he never loses his focus on or his engagement with Myung; a strong if vulnerable protagonist who gradually reconciles herself with the narrow-minded backwater she had been so happy to leave far behind.
Myung comes to subtly stand for Korea itself, a thrustingly modern — even futuristic — nation with a deep hinterland of powerful traditions, which continually strives to balance the seemingly incompatible elements of its character. The answers here lie mainly in elaborate costuming, percussive beats and terpsichorean abandon; these non-verbal, non-rational forces can together can transcend all boundaries of culture and chronology. (The title refers to the flamboyantly-coloured “spirit animal” which symbolically connects Myung with her enigmatic, long-dead grandfather.)
Sloane Kim Hae-in’s vibrant 4:3 cinematography (imaginative compositions and sensual close-ups abound), Jung Boo-ja’s costuming and the electronica-oriented score by Casepeat all pull their weight (and more) in a picture which achieves an organic harmony of constituent parts under Byun’s assured control. The success of a ritual dance, we’re told on more than one occasion, depends on “style and flow” — Peafowl has more than enough of both to remain buoyantly aloft across two entertaining, illuminating hours.
Production companies: Ssarinamu Film, Semicolon Studio
International sales: M-LINE Distribution, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Byun Sung-bin, Yoon Suk-chan
Cinematography: Sloane Kim Hae-In
Production design: Hyun-ah Ryu
Editing: Lee Young-hoo
Main cast: Hae-jun, Kim U-gyeom, Gong Jae-hyun, Kim Jin-soo, Hwang Jeong-min, Ki Ju-bong