BLUE BAYOU

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Justin Chon

Stars: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Emory Cohen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Linh Dan Pham Sydney Kowalske. 

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This affecting drama draws its inspiration from the true story of a number of Korean war babies that were adopted by American families in the States and raised on a diet of American culture. But because the necessary paperwork was not properly filled out or filed back then these orphans faced deportation under immigration law. They faced being sent back to a country they don’t know or have any physical or emotional connection with. 

That is the situation facing Antonio Le Blanc (Justin Chon) in Blue Bayou. Antonio works as a freelance tattoo artist in Louisiana, struggling to make ends meet. He is married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and is a loving step-father to her precocious seven year old daughter Jessie (newcomer Sydney Kowlaske). They are expecting another child. But then an altercation with Ace (Mark O’Brien) Kathy’s ex-partner and a police officer, leads to his past catching up with him. Ace is Jessie’s biological father but he abandoned them a few years ago and is now trying to gain more access to his estranged daughter, thus increasing tensions between them.  

As a youth Antonio ran with a local gang that stole motorbikes, and now his past criminal record means he faces deportation to a country he doesn’t even know. The couple engage the services of Boucher (Vondie Curtis Hall), an immigration lawyer, to try and fight the red tape to remain in the country. 

The heart wrenching final scene shows the family being torn apart at the airport departure gates. Over the end credits we see a montage featuring a number of people in a similar situation, which perfectly illustrates the point that Chon is trying to make with this affecting drama that criticizes the harshness and unintended cruelty of American immigration law. The film also touches on the casual racism experienced by Asian-Americans everyday in contemporary America, as evidenced in the painfully excruciating interview scene which opens the drama.  

A major subplot follows Antonio’s friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese refugee whose family life and background offers a contrast to his, and serves to further underscore his sense of displacement. 

The relationship between Antonio and Kathy is sprinkled with little details that make them seem like a real loving couple, which adds to the emotional heft and rawness of the film’s ending. Vikander is sympathetic and delivers a strong and emotionally powerful portrayal, and she evens delivers a moving rendition of the title song during a leisurely party. Chon brings a wounded dignity and sense of frustration and slow burning anger to his performance. While Ace clearly has a conscience and grows increasingly troubled, his volatile and racist partner Denny (Emory Cohen) makes matters worse. Cohen’s Denny is essentially a cliched and stereotypical brutal thuggish cop and a thoroughly unlikeable character. 

This is the fourth feature film from writer/director Chon (Gook, etc), and while he is not drawing upon personal experience he has been inspired by a number of newspaper articles highlighting this immigration policy and its unintended consequences. There are some lyrical and ethereal looking dream sequences, shot in a misty blue palette by cinematographers Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng, who also use handheld cameras to give some scenes a sense of intimacy.  

★★★ 

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