Peafowl (2022) is a visual delight showcasing the synthesis of traditional Korean dance rituals and waacking, a queer dance style originating from 1970s LA. The film centres around Myung, (played by the fabulous Haejun) who is a transgender waacker (both IRL and in the film). In order to pay for her gender-affirming surgery, we see her battle it out at the International Waacker’s competition final, a dazzling opening scene that captures the confidence and immense bodily control required by the style. However, she loses, criticised by a judge who says she doesn’t ‘have her own colour’. Thus begins her journey to find it.
An opportunity comes in the form of her estranged father’s death. Forced to return to her rural hometown Hochang (a fictional town in Jeolla-do) for the funeral, she is promised his inheritance if she performs the Chumogoot (추모굿), a traditional ceremony that marks the 49th day of his passing.
Immediately upon arrival, she is met with a torrent of disapproval from her uncle, a painful reminder of why she cut ties with the village and her father in the first place. The other villagers have differing levels of acceptance – her aunt who helped raise her is caring but doesn’t want trouble, whilst her childhood friend and father’s disciple Woogi is suspiciously insistent that she stay and partake in the ceremony. At first, Myung makes it clear she’s only there for the money. But she gradually discovers new purpose and connections in the village she’d sworn to never return to.
It’s a beautifully emotive film but the dialogue feels slightly stilted at times. There’s hardly any nuance or subtlety in the script, but in a way it works. The K-drama-esque melodrama is effective in letting the audience feel catharsis in scenes where we see Myung react coolly and in control to her uncle’s fury.
The film smartly avoids telling the queer assimilation narrative where Myung’s family accept her as transgender, and instead focuses on her internal journey towards liberation from past trauma. At a time when LGBT+ rights are under attack across the globe, queer audiences understandably might not want to see rampant homophobia and transphobia on the big screen. Although this film has its share of misgendering and hatred, Myung’s refusal to be humiliated or feel ashamed means it’s a far cry from becoming trauma porn.
The peafowl metaphor feels right- its opulent feathers adorned with thousands of eyes could symbolise both the beauty and power of trans people as well as the issue of trans visibility. In today’s climate, to be trans is to be both invisible and hyper-visible, a strange and difficult to navigate contradiction. Myung rejects both – she demands to be seen but only on her own terms.
In Korean mythology, the peafowl also connects heaven and earth. It’s believed that these birds came down to earth to take the souls of the dead to the heavens, so it’s no wonder they seek out Myung to help her make amends with the deceased and move forward with her life.
Whilst the plot is largely predictable, it’s the dance scenes where the film really comes alive. Haejun is mesmerising in both her self-assured waacking and traditional Nongak dance, for which she must re-learn to play the Sogo (miniature Korean drum) her father taught her as a child. Initially ambivalent, she soon gets into the rhythm and can’t keep a smile off her face as she experiences the collective joy of the ritual.
In a way, Peafowl feels like a dance movie more than anything, but goes beyond that with its examination of identity. The film asks if it’s possible to reconnect with your roots whilst being proud and out. Although queerness is intrinsic to many cultures, imported homophobia from colonisers and Christian missionaries has made that question impossible for many QPOC who have been forced to choose.
In this film at least, dance is the answer. People might not accept or understand you, but dance speaks for itself. It offers an expression of grief and release that transcends language. Through an impeccable electronic music score that isn’t so different from the bass of the Nongak instruments, to an unforgettably vibrant final dance sequence, Peafowl captures the power of dance to bring people together and forgive past grievances.