Transnational adoptees might carry one of the heaviest loads of emotional displacement in these ever-growing stories of Asian-Americans. Justin Chon, a Korean-American who was raised in southern California and has based his previous directorial efforts in the LA community, decides to take this representative task on in one of this year’s emotional face-punches, Blue Bayou. Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Baton-Rouge-homegrown adoptee who experiences that displacement, but who faces too many of life’s ordeals to articulate this specific feeling of alienation.
A prospective employer asks Antonio, “Where are you really from?” This is a commonly barbed question for people who appear non-white, but for Antonio, the fragmented pieces inside him that were untouched now are looking sharper. He doesn’t know his birth mother and refuses to acknowledge his foster parents. But he finds a safe haven in the family he’s nested for himself in New Orleans: his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), stepdaughter Jessie, and another baby on the way. He tries to make ends meet as he pays for his rented space at a tattoo parlor while supporting his family without having Kathy go back to work. Things take a turn for the worse when Antonio is arrested for an unwarranted altercation with Jessie’s cop father Ace (Mark O’Brien) and his partner at a grocery store. Due to a loophole in the adoption process, Antonio hadn’t been a legal U.S. citizen when he came to the country and now faces deportation. Of course, the brutal truth is that Antonio has lived in this country for over thirty years. What would it mean for him to go back to Korea?
Chon’s indie dramas tend to be heavy-handed affairs, but Blue Bayou rapaciously explores different depths of the human adversity. At surface, American immigration laws are shown to be a struggle for families without financial means or legal representation. Racism is another player, which Antonio has to learn to brush off without causing a scene. However, toxic masculinity, which Antonio’s brash mistakes and self-containment seem to majorly stem from, is probably one of the biggest issues that filters through the willow canopies and Southern humidity, but is never quite addressed. All of this is to say, this probably is why the standouts of the movie are Vikander’s performance (and actual vocal performance of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”) and Linh Dan Pham’s role as Parker, a Vietnamese refugee undergoing chemotherapy. The women anchor the turbulence of Antonio’s actions, though it’s hard for me to admit the advantage of female characters being vital for a man’s development.
Until this film, I forgot what complete devastation in a film’s motion was like. Life, in its cruel reality, won’t have a happy ending. But in the last minutes of Blue Bayou, it felt like I was in a sinking boat, and instead of giving me a hallucinogenic to think of lighter things before I die, Chon decides to throw drowned bodies onto the boat. The movie completes the assignment in passionate delivery, but when it becomes overkill, I found myself thinking, “Is this what This is Us is about? A tragedy pile-on?” All the same, I believe Chon’s risk-taking heart is in the right place. If there was a promise, one will be moved by this movie’s anticipated power of passion and the exposed broken systems of the law.
dir. Justin Chon
In theaters now (including the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and Capitol Theatre)