By Arturo Arredondo
112 minutes, USA, 2021
Justin Chon’s 3rd feature-length outing as writer/director is an assured, confident mix of family drama, crime drama, and social commentary. Telling the story a 33-year old Korean adoptee who was brought to the US as an infant, our protagonist finds himself to have never been granted citizenship despite living in Louisiana for 30 years. What follows are a series of injustices, bad decisions, and chance encounters that cascade like falling dominoes. There is a quiet tenderness found in the gentle scenes of domestic life which is continuously juxtaposed with a raw intensity in the louder, more dynamic scenes of arguments and fights; it is masterfully executed and pairs well with the alternating between a laser-guided focus on LeBlanc’s family life and the grander scope of the systemic injustices foreign adoptees face when they come of age in the US.
When we meet tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc, he is applying for a 2nd job at a mechanic shop. He speaks with a Louisiana accent, but still endures the racist micro aggression of being asked “Where you are from?” because he’s Asian. This is coupled with suspicion cast on him due to his felony record, and he is turned away. What follows is the unraveling of a family man’s life after an encounter with police in a grocery store; he and his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) are arguing over expensive vacation plans when they are overheard by a couple of police, one of whom is Ace (Mark O’Brien), the father of Kathy’s daughter (now Antonio’s stepdaughter) Jessie (child actress Sydney Kowalske). Ace was a deadbeat who ran out on Kathy and Jessie, and is implied to have abused his daughter. Ace’s partner Denny (Emory Cohen is an excellent performance) is your typical corrupt police officer; Antonio’s troubles begin because of Denny’s beating and arrest of Antonio for perceived “contempt of cop” due to Antonio’s refusal to address Denny as “sir.” Unfortunately, this is a very true-to-life depiction of police encounters in the United States, and it’s one of many realistic moments the film absolutely nails.
You would be forgiven for mistaking Justin Chon’s performance as neorealist, as he and others in the lead cast have the New Orleans accent down. The main cast are all from either up north, Canada, Sweden, and in Lin Dan Pham’s case, Vietnam/France. Chon himself is probably the one with origins closest to Louisiana, being from California. The supporting cast, however, is seemingly all NOLA natives and it boosts the already surprising authenticity and credibility of the film. Martin Bats Bradford appears as Lajon, one of Antonio’s associates from his motorcycle stealing crew. The standout, however, is LeBlanc’s friend Quentin, played by Altonio Jackson, who previously had his breakout role on HBO’s 4-season series Treme. While Antonio’s crew all trade-off on the comic relief, Quentin exudes a warm presence and backs up Antonio constantly, which given Q’s familiarity with Jessie, suggests that he has perhaps known Antonio the longest and is his closest friend.
While Justin Chon leans on melodrama for certain scenes, it is never excessive to the point of milking audience emotion as found in usual formulaic Hollywood movies. The characters are complex, especially Antonio with his criminal record. There are less than a handful of arguably questionable creative decisions; recurring visions of LeBlanc’s mother by a river, the soaring music when LeBlanc finds himself underwater, and the sustained closeup of Kathy singing “Blue Bayou” during a long take, but other than the visions of LeBlanc’s birth mother, none detract from the realism and urgency which anchor the plot. A great use of subversion is Toby Vitrano’s character Merk, an agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement whose intimidating physique and referrals to his targets as “bad guys” sets up some nasty expectations, but this is a movie that is earnest rather than entertaining. Maybe some viewers will find that twist convenient, but even Erwin Rommel managed to be a halfway decent Nazi. Despite ICE’s penchant for running concentration camps, sexually abusing migrant children, and forcibly sterilizing migrant mothers, Merk’s sympathetic treatment of LeBlanc feels real considering Merk is a repeat customer of LeBlanc’s tattoo services. For me personally, earnestness goes a long way for films. Justin Chon clearly believes Korean adoptees facing deportation needed their stories told, and it is this humanitarian concern that propels and underpins the story.
One thing the script does very well is avoid expanding the scope too far when dealing with LeBlanc’s situation. Rather than further his development through meeting another adoptee facing deportation, it is Parker, a kind Vietnamese woman (played by Lin Dahn Pham) who arrived with her father as refugees after the war. She is dying of cancer, and their shared moments have a profound impact on him. Despite LeBlanc suffering multiple incidents of police abuse, Chon made the smart decision to not involve a lawsuit subplot which would have made for a different film entirely. Ace, Denny and the stoic ICE agents just following orders are representing a national problem, but the emotional power of confronting this is enhanced by centering on one person’s struggle with these institutions. It would be difficult to show how police unions release statements encouraging police departments to act as death squads carrying out daily extrajudicial killings, and their lobbying for impunity from legal repercussions when police break the law as well as campaigning against relaxing punitive measures for victimless crimes such as marijuana possession. This would have inevitably turned into a courtroom drama and it functions far better by limiting this aspect, although Vondie Curtis-Hall as stern but caring attorney Barry Boucher keeps the trial discussions engaging with his quick thinking and resourceful planning.
Shot on 16mm film, the image quality is beautiful. For the film buffs out there, there are a few scenes where you’ll see a visible film hair curled into the frame, particularly in the shot at the bayou when Antonio points out Spanish mosh to Jessie, but that’s the nature of film. It’s not a distraction or bothersome, or at least shouldn’t be if you know what film is and how film works. The lighting is superb and consistently even, especially during the nighttime scenes. It looks like the work was finished on a digital intermediate, because there is clarity and fine detail visible underneath the grain, which was thankfully not washed away through the use of digital noise reduction or edge enhancement. Cinematographers Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng deserve an award for the camerawork here. Editing by Reynolds Barney excels at balancing shot lengths but will test the patience of commercially-minded audiences.
Sound design is mostly understated aside from the pivotal scenes that usually involve domestic arguments, LeBlanc speeding on his motorcycle, and tense meetings between the LeBlancs and Ace about custody of Jessie. Fittingly for a movie set in NOLA, music is essential at certain points. The first song played is by Big Freedia when Antonio rides his motorcycle after being rejected by the mech shop, and it sets a standard of great song choices throughout the film. Even in the aforementioned underwater scene, the orchestral score isn’t cliché, but it is a bit too loud, but that could be my distaste for the volume in theaters.
Justin Chon was wise to not sugarcoat the real-life stories he based his script on. The film ends with snapshots and details of Korean adoptees who were deported as adults despite being brought to the US as children. It reminded me of the Korean film Silenced, based on the true story of a school for deaf children who were being sexually abused by the faculty. Police refused to investigate because “Christians don’t do that” and the revelation prompted massive public outrage leading to an eventual trial. The film touches on Antonio’s abuse by his adoptive parents which is a theme in many adoptees’ lives such as Monte Haines who is the first deported adoptee featured. The film unfortunately would have been too long if it devoted time to the issue of faith-based adoption agencies enabling this abuse. Many of these agencies would only adopt to church-going families, that was the sole criteria. Children were often physically and sexually abused and complaints were either not investigated or children were simply shuffled around. The whole time, no one responsible for the children was filling the proper paperwork for the children’s citizenship, which is why now to this day ICE is deporting adult adoptees to countries they left as 2-year old, and consequently have no grasp of the culture or language. Naturally, rather than investigate the adoptive parents for neglect, the solution we’ve found is to wait for the children to grow up and then punish them for their parents’ failure to properly care for them. The stoic faces of the ICE agents in the film are a chilling reminder of this inhumane approach to immigration and border policies in the US. That Justin Chon was willing to take this project on, and produce such an honest film about it, is commendable. Blue Bayou is a near-perfect film.