Filmmaker Justin Chon has built an impressive oeuvre over the past six years. An actor who broke out in the “Twilight” franchise, he has since dedicated his craft to writing and directing slice-of-life indie gems that depict the Asian American experience. His latest, “Blue Bayou,” just might be Chon’s best yet.
Chon wrote, directed and stars in “Blue Bayou.” Born and raised in Southern California, he melts into the easy lilt of a Cajun accent as Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana man adopted from Korea by a white family as a toddler. Yet his Southern demeanor and many tattoos can’t protect him from racist micro-aggressions that take the form of questions like, “Where are you from? No, I mean where were you born?” Antonio exists in a liminal space, disconnected from his Korean heritage, estranged from his adopted parents, viewed as an outsider in the only place he has called home.
Antonio’s deepest connection and heart is with his burgeoning young family: pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). The trio is inseparable, and Chon shoots them against stunning waterside vistas, sunset-drenched bridges and lush green bayous instantly situating us within this unique place. Kathy and Antonio’s bond is communicated most powerfully without words, in the charged looks and glances they share.
But this intimate family story is also an issue film, and the inciting incident that sets the plot tumbling in motion is an ugly confrontation in a grocery store with Kathy’s ex, Jessie’s father, Ace (Mark O’Brien), a police officer. The scuffle gets Antonio arrested and, subsequently, surprisingly detained by Immigration Customs and Enforcement. When Antonio was adopted, his citizenship status was never properly filed, and now, through no fault of his own, he’s undocumented and facing deportation.
What ensues is a searing melodrama, as Antonio, desperate and backed into a corner, resorts to old habits, dabbling in motorcycle theft enabled by an old friend, Q (Altonio Jackson), to pay for the cost of a lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall). He faces old demons in the form of his foster mother, whose home he escaped long ago. Wracked with deeply repressed memories and visions of his young mother, he achieves some measure of healing thanks to a new friend, Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese American woman with a large family who takes Antonio under her wing.
As the plot progresses, Antonio makes frustrating choices that may bedevil the viewer even if they reflect something deeply human and deeply fallible. Chon escalates the story to operatic heights that this intimate indie can’t quite sustain, and there are climatic moments that feel overwrought and somewhat underdeveloped in terms of character. Where “Blue Bayou” succeeds is in the quiet moments, not the loud ones, whether that’s the emotional gaze of Antonio taking in Kathy singing the titular song at a family cookout, or Jessie finding comfort in a hug from Daddy. Those are the moments that linger, that tear your heart open to the message that Chon hopes to impart, about an immigration policy that has ripped adopted folks from their families and homes.
“Blue Bayou” was filmed on 16mm, which has become one of Chon’s auteurist hallmarks, creating for a grainy, tactile and textured immediacy of the image. It beautifully captures the location, and performances, of which Chon’s is a standout, roiling emotions bubbling just below Antonio’s controlled surface. As Chon calibrates a wide variety of emotions, allowing space for all the agonies, ecstasies, repressions and excesses, he crafts a tale of intergenerational traumas and personal redemptions that is an emotionally complicated yet ultimately cathartic viewing experience.