After Minari (2020), Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou is the second film this year to deal with the “Korean-American dream,” and the sandpaper-like friction between Korean residents and US immigration policy. This dream belongs to Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon), who was adopted by American parents at a young age, and now lives in New Orleans with his pregnant wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and step-daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). The family live in relative peace, despite their poverty, and Chon devotes a considerable amount of Blue Bayou to painting scenes of their happiness. Blue Bayou gathers into its arms the same emotional cues of compassion and empathy as Minari did, even if their resonance is less subtle, less poetic.
Antonio is a good, decent man, but like the best of us, he is still capable of mistakes: prior motorbike thefts blight his police record; he displays a kind of recklessness when confronted with his challenging circumstances; and perhaps most forgivingly, he gives in to the whims of his step-daughter, rather than taking her to her first day of school. His inherent goodness is felt most tenderly in his interactions with his family, whose love for one another warmly radiates through every scene. He certainly doesn’t deserve his fate. An accidental supermarket bust-up with two police officers (Mark O’Brien and Emory Cohen) puts Antonio into ICE custody and faced with deportation to South Korea. Antonio is one of many adoptees who turned 18 before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was legally passed, denying him the same protection — a devastating black-hole in the system.
Inevitably, the rest of Blue Bayou is struggle and sadness — a sobering thesis about the blatant injustices of US immigration policies, uprooting US citizens from their homes and communities and relocating them to countries they have never seen or lived in before. Antonio’s own memories of Korea are buried in dreams and reimagined through years of hurt and bitterness (the knowledge that his birth mother attempted to drown him appears like an aqueous fever dream). The prospect of returning “home” might as well be a kind of death. Chon’s visual aesthetic is on-par with the rusty landscapes of Jeff Nichols, Joel Souza, and most especially Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), drawing stories of working-class American poverty.
But Blue Bayou is ultimately threatened by its sentimentality: our sympathies are stretched too far, their miseries are forever desperate, without relief. Alicia Vikander breathes great life and strength into a character mostly side-lined by this plot, unable to be more than Antonio’s struggling wife, reeling from her husband’s terrible situation. Her star power feels at odds with the role.
Chon’s efforts are to be applauded, even though the final result is imperfect, and lacks the poetry of Minari.
Blue Bayou will be screening in UK cinemas from December 3
Director: Justin Chon
Stars: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien
Runtime: 119 minutes