With potent performances and a dreamy-yet-gritty look, this deeply moving drama tackles America's immigration laws and their punitive impact.
November 18, 2021
Blue Bayou isn't Justin Chon's first film as an actor, writer, director or producer, but it's a fantastic showcase for his many talents nonetheless. It's also a deeply moving feature about a topical subject: America's immigration laws, which are complicated at best and draconian at worst. Worlds away from his time in all five Twilight flicks — because Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Anna Kendrick aren't the franchise's only breakout stars — Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc. While the Korean American tattoo artist has lived in Louisiana since being adopted as child, the name he was given upon his arrival in the US still sparks cognitive dissonance, as the job interview that opens the movie illustrates. It also doesn't stop both the casual and overt racism frequently directed his way, or the deportation proceedings that spring after he's accosted in a supermarket by New Orleans police officers.
Helming and scripting as well as starring, Chon layers Antonio's situation with complexity from the outset. He's getting by, just, but his criminal record makes it difficult to secure more work — which he needs given his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, The Green Knight) is pregnant. He's a doting stepdad to her daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, Doom Patrol), but her birth father Ace (Mark O'Brien, Marriage Story) is one of those aforementioned cops. Also, Ace has a bigoted partner, Denny (Emory Cohen, Flashback), who makes antagonising Antonio his daily mission. And, after that grocery store run-in, the latter discovers that his adoptive parents didn't ever complete the paperwork required to naturalise him as a US citizen. His life, his wife, his kids, that he has no ties to Korea: sadly, it all means nothing to the immigration system.
Based on the plot description, it'd be simple to accuse Blue Bayou of throwing too much at its protagonist, dialling up his hardships and wallowing in his misery, all to tug at heartstrings. The film inspires a strong emotional reaction; however, this isn't just a case of calculating narrative machinations manipulating viewers to feel everything — or even something. There's a sense of inevitability to Chon's feature, his fourth after Man Up, Gook and Ms Purple, and it's all by design. The path that Antonio's life is forced down isn't surprising, complete with tough truths and heartbreaking realities, but it's filled with authenticity. Piling on misfortune after misfortune isn't merely a ploy when all of Blue Bayou's dramas can easily accumulate as they do here, and when no one's struggles are ever limited to just one or two troubles. There's no contrivance in sight, but rather a firm understanding of snowballing sorrows and their overwhelming impact.
Still, Chon walks a delicate tightrope. He could've veered into tear-wringing movie of the week-style melodrama, clogged it up with cliches and failed to evoke even a single genuine feeling — or, alternatively, he could've deployed too much restraint and crafted a clinical, procedural film that saw Antonio as a mere cog in a system. The space he's carved out in-between is both masterful and organically messy; finding the right balance is a mammoth task, and embracing the whirlwind that sweeps along Antonio, Kathy and Jessie is inherently chaotic. The result is a stirring and empathetic film that's also precise and intricate, especially when it comes to the emotional deluge weathered by its central trio. At every turn, Blue Bayou plunges viewers into their turbulent existence, sees their plight with clear eyes and acknowledges all that that encompasses.
That's true not just in the story's ups and downs, but in every shimmering sight lensed by cinematographers Ante Cheng (Death of Nintendo) and Matthew Chuang (My First Summer). Blue Bayou looks both gritty and romantic at once, finding the immensely tricky midpoint between staying in the moment with all its bleak developments, and also savouring the details, including the small joys and wins, as one does when recalling memories. The movie's urgent, bustling pacing falls into the first category as well, while the second camp spans a fondness not just for water and water lilies — its most heavy-handed piece of symbolism — but also for lingering close-ups of Chon, Kowalske and Vikander. The time spent with Chon and Kowalske alone is revelatory, in fact, soaking in their bond as if it's the most meaningful thing in the world.
There's an openness and genuineness to these scenes — an in-the-moment earnestness — that marks Blue Bayou at its finest. The whole film takes the same approach as it shows not only what Antonio is battling against, but what he's fighting to retain; however, these tiny slivers of connection are its crowning glories. Chon is terrific on-screen and -off throughout, but he's exceptionally sincere and full-hearted when he's lapping up oh-so-fleeting seconds with scene-stealer Kowalske. That said, he brings the same resonance to Antonio's well-intentioned but self-destructive choices, especially in the film's midsection. His rapport with the also-excellent Vikander resounds with the kind of hard-fought love that's learned to survive and thrive against the odds, too.
Visually, thematically and thanks to potent performances, Blue Bayou would make a stellar double with Monsoon — another big-hearted yet small-in-scale gem that's also about immigration, identity and the interpersonal flotsam that washes up when the pair collide. Scenes where Antonio befriends Vietnamese refugee Parker (Linh-Dan Pham, Mytho), who has similarly lived in the US since childhood and invites him to her family gatherings, particularly bind the two films. They're different in a plethora of ways but, crucially, both pictures recognise the importance of atmosphere in conveying an emotional state, putting audiences in the thick of it with their characters, and peering into minds and hearts. That's where Blue Bayou echoes, whether or not it's playing the Roy Orbison-penned song that gives it its name. This is a movie about migration, discrimination, resilience and endurance in an uncaring world, and about oppressive bureaucracies, engrained prejudice and a supposed land of the free that rarely lives up to that ideal, but it's always a film about people first and foremost.