Justin Chon remains an important voice for the “other side” of the Asian American experience. With overlooked movies like Gook and Ms. Purple, Chon continues to show support for those Asian American journeys not often depicted in American films; the lives regularly ignored by Hollywood. His latest movie, Blue Bayou, is no exception, seeing as he follows a Louisiana-raised Korean American who is at risk of deportation.
Antonio LeBlanc (Chon) was born in Korea and then adopted by white parents at a very young age. Now as a father of two kids — a young stepdaughter named Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) and a baby on the way with wife Dani (Alicia Vikander) — and living in a small town outside New Orleans, he barely makes ends meet with his dead-end job at a tattoo parlor. A criminal record also prevents him from getting more work to support his growing family. An altercation with Jessie’s estranged bio-father (Mark O’Brien), a troubled police officer, later lands Antonio in trouble with ICE; he learns his adoptive parents never naturalized him. In danger of being deported, Antonio desperately finds a way to keep his family together.
The mainstream has this infatuation with showing only Asian American excellence; prodigies who grow up to be doctors and scientists, and hardworking parents who sacrifice everything so their kids can experience a better life. No matter how they cut it and more often than not, Hollywood perpetuates the “model minority” myth. Yet with someone like Antonio, there is a certain validation to be felt among those Asian Americans who weren’t afforded the same opportunities as those deemed the “good ones” by white America. His life hurdles are many and insurmountable. Chon writes a nuanced portrayal of Asian folks who don’t fit into the ideal image, and he probes Antonio’s interiority with staggering insight.
The most pressing theme in Blue Bayou is unambiguously a desire to belong. Antonio has dealt with this all his life and with has mostly trauma to show for it. Battered, maligned and rejected; it’s not at all hard to feel for Antonio and discern his pathos. Whether he fights tooth and nail to stay in this country so he can remain with his only family, or he finds solace in someone of the Asian diaspora — akin to a life he vaguely remembers prior to his adoption. Chon beautifully examines what family means to someone who’s struggled to find his place after being made to feel like an outsider his entire life.
Blue Bayou hurls a lot of pain at Antonio. By the third act, the stack of injustices is so high, it borders on unbelievable. Chon is merely trying to convey what a miserable life his character leads or is fated to live, but how everything comes to a head for Antonio is needlessly coarse. Even so, there is no denying the story hits close to home and arouses sympathy. How Chon goes about it is effective, if not indelicate.
As usual, the visual work of Chon’s movie is staggering; Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang‘s cinematography looks especially raw and gorgeous due in large part to the use of 16mm film. The bayou scenes are enchanting and surreal, and the cityscapes are easy to get lost in. The invasive yet crucial close-ups of faces show the fine details of both skin and emotion. It’s all breathtaking to look at.
Asian Americans struggling to fit in and redefine societal frameworks should know about Chon and his work. On top of challenging norms is a spate of heartrending performances and complex characterizations. Blue Bayou will undoubtedly go unnoticed by the masses and even worse, the awards circuit. It absolutely has its issues here and there — the choice to focus on benevolent individualism rather than overall corruption might not sit well with folks — but when the positives are as good as they are here, the flaws take a backseat.