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Film Review: Blue Bayou

6 December 21 words: Yasmin Turner

Inspired by real-life stories, writer-director Justin Chon plays a Korean-American man who exposes the inhumane policy of deporting adopted children, America’s equivalent of the UK’s Windrush Scandal…

Director: Justin Chon
Starring: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien
Running time: 117 minutes

In the opening scene of Blue Bayou, Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon) is being interviewed by the voice of an unidentified man – but the voice alone is enough. You don’t need to see the man in order to perceive his contempt for Antonio’s Korean heritage, his polite manner and urgency for a job. When Antonio finally must admit to committing a felony in his youth, the voice purrs with principled satisfaction at being able to dismiss his job application. 

Written, directed and acted by Chon, the film exposes the consequences of the United States’ ruthless immigration legislation. The matter is still not resolved to this date, with even the new Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021 – that aims to repeal a loophole that has operated to deny automatic US citizenship – currently pending in the US Congress. Chon is famously known for playing Eric in the Twilight saga and made his directing breakthrough in 2017 with, the equally political and forthright Gook, a fictional reworking of events set around the 1992 LA riots. 

Here, Chon stars as Antonio, a baby brought up by a negligent White American couple with a French surname after his immigrant Korean mother gave him up for adoption. He has been living in America since he was a baby and, after a troubled past with bouts in jail for stealing motorbikes, Antonio has transformed his life, working for a tattoo artist and married to American Kathy (Alicia Vikander) – whose performance you won’t be disappointed by when, with no dubbing, she sings a mesmerising karaoke version of Roy Orbison’s international hit about the Louisiana wetlands that grants the film its title. But none of the above help with his claim as he’s about to be entrapped by the bureaucratic red tape that ties up the lives of so many refugees and asylum seekers across the world. 

Antonio and his wife, Kathy, are having a noisy but trivial argument in a supermarket aisle when her ex-husband Ace (Mark O’Brien), a cop, who is demanding parental access rights to their daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), walks in. There’s a clash and Antonio is taken away to the police station where, influenced by racist cop partner Denny (Emory Cohen) and jealous of his daughter being parented by another man, Ace has the realisation that in the US, adopted people of immigrant descent without paperwork have no guaranteed residency. Antonio is handed over to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the family’s heart-breaking separation begins.

Subtlety is not the film’s strong point, but for such a wrenching topic, the melodrama is perhaps not a complete surprise

Chon, who himself is Korean-American, is not writing from direct experience, even though his tremendous and likeable portrayal of the protagonist would suggest otherwise. Instead, his script was inspired by newspaper articles about South Korean children adopted in the US who were deported by the ICE. These stories are appalling, and awareness is much needed for the pending bill, which removes this loophole in the immigration system that is affecting such a large population of families and individuals, to be passed. The Adoptee Rights Campaign’s recent National Report to Congress estimates that from 1945 to 1998, between 25,000 and 49,000 people adopted remain in legal limbo and an additional 7,321 to 14,643 children adopted from 1999 to 2016 are under threat of reaching adulthood without US citizenship, resulting in possible deportation. Chon certainly covers the gap in the market for films on the topic. 

Subtlety is not the film’s strong point, with slightly overcooked melodrama, from a motorcycle chase, an unborn baby in the picture and a terminal cancer subplot. However, for such a wrenching topic, the melodrama is perhaps not a complete surprise, and the film’s closing scene, while cranking the agony dials up further, echoes scenes happening across the real world every day to people just like those in the crushing roll call of deported adoptees that follows. 

This is a film that is sure to leave many in tears and raises serious questions about the inhumane immigration policy. Chon forces us to realise how fragile status is within a country and how easy it is for those who believe they are settled, to become instantly displaced, a topic that is currently resurfacing in the UK’s new proposed Nationality and Borders bill. 

Did you know? Blue Bayou has been met with controversy after Adam Crapser, a Korean adoptee who was deported in 2016, claimed that the movie uses elements of his own story without his consent. Chon responded by saying that each draft of the film was shared with thirteen “core” adoptees and was not intended to reflect the lives of any one individual.

Blue Bayou is in cinemas now

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