Review: 'Blue Bayou' a Powerful Indictment of a Broken System

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

  (Source:Focus Features)

Where is home? Is it where you were born, where you've lived the longest, or is it defined by the people you love? What if you had to live under the threat of being wrenched from the home you've always known? "Blue Bayou" wrestles with these issues, as well as identity, family, and trauma. It's an emotional drama about a Korean American immigrant, adopted as a child and facing deportation.

Written and directed by Justin Chon — who stars as protagonist Antonio ,along with Alicia Vikander — "Blue Bayou" premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. I love Chon's film "Gook," which he both directed and starred in, an incendiary and searing film about racism in 1992 Los Angeles. I also enjoyed his film "Ms. Purple." His films are unfurling mediations.

In the film's opening scene, we learn numerous details about Antonio as he undergoes a job interview. Born in Korea, he came to the U.S. at a young age and was adopted. He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he has a felony conviction for stealing motorcycles. He works as a tattoo artist and has a loving family: A wife, a stepdaughter, and a baby on the way.

After an incident of harassment by police, Antonio faces deportation due to his adopted family not filing the correct paperwork for citizenship when he was a child. He must contend with paying costly legal fees while confronting his painful past.

Justin Chon gives a staggering performance, which anchors the film. Natural and nuanced, brimming with determination, devotion, and frustration, his performance is the best part of the film. My favorite scenes, which truly dazzle, reveal the loving relationship between Antonio and his stepdaughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). They share a tender, fun rapport buoyed by their connection and his nurturing nature. Jessie worries that Antonio will abandon her once her sibling is born, since the new baby will be Antonio's "real" child. But Antonio assures her that he will always be there — which, of course, becomes a bittersweet promise when he faces deportation.

"Blue Bayou" Anchored by a Powerful Lead Performance

Alicia Vikander is adequate as Kathy, Antonio's pregnant wife. Vondie Curtis-Hall, always a delight to see, portrays an immigration lawyer advising Antonio and Kathy. I like Antonio's friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese woman who gets tattoos from him and invites him into her home. He gets a glimpse of East Asian food, language, and cultural traditions that have been missing from his life. The two talk of family, identity, and Parker being a refugee.

A dreamlike fluidity imbues some scenes, juxtaposed by the gritty and grainy aesthetic of the 16mm cinematography by Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng. Some frames are lit in strikingly melancholic shades of blue. A bayou perpetually beckons Antonio, his secret place of solace and solitude, reminiscent of a haunting childhood memory.

As much as I liked "Blue Bayou," at times repetitive flashbacks and visual motifs and choppy editing dilute the film. In some scenes the editing works, evocative of a rush of memories spilling forth; at times, the film careens towards melodrama.

The film condemns the existing structure of deportation laws and lack of protection for people who were internationally adopted as children. But its problematic depiction of law enforcement (specifically an ICE officer and two cops) makes it seem that it's a problem of bad individuals, rather than a systemic problem of institutional racism and white supremacy. Yet, the film excels at showing the tremendous difficulty in navigating immigration and the cataclysmic pain deportation wreaks, tearing families apart.

"Blue Bayou" shines due to Chon's outstanding performance. I cared about Antonio's plight, invested in his struggle to stay in the U.S. with his family. The ending builds to a powerfully emotional crescendo that destroyed me.

"Blue Bayou" opens in theaters on September 17, 2021.