Blue Bayou, the latest effort from multi-hyphenate Justin Chon (Gook)—here writer-director-star, once upon a time Eric Yorkie in the Twilight series, which has somehow become the gift that keeps on giving to independent cinema—is both the best and worst of times as far as social issue melodramas are concerned. Tackling the horrifying and largely unaddressed tragedy that is the precarious citizenship status of many international adoptees brought to the US before the enactment of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the film tells the story of Antonio LeBlanc (Chon), a man born in South Korea and brought to the United States at age 3 after being adopted by a white American family. Gorgeously shot in 16mm with an appreciation for vibrant hues that feels old-fashioned in the best possible sense, it’s also the sort of film that understands that seeing and depicting beauty does not require glamour, stylistically akin to the best of Sean Baker.
Blue Bayou is one of several recent films—including the Riz Ahmed-starring Mogul Mowgli and Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian—to grapple with intergenerational trauma and the liminalities of identity in character studies of men of color in crisis that overtly link the personal and political. The fascinating similarities and contrasts between these three films all released in the US within the span of just a few weeks feel like a media studies thesis just waiting to be written. While this review isn’t the place to take too deep a dive, that all of these films are so compelling in aspects and yet flawed in others speaks to both the deep resonance of the themes they explore and just how difficult these themes are to tackle. Blue Bayou is at once the film of these three that reaches the highest highs and takes the worst tumbles—it is, in all regards, doing the most, all the time, and there are ways in which it works very well until it goes overboard.
The film takes a while to reveal the central storyline, giving viewers time to get invested in Antonio’s world, and him as a character, before sh*t hits the fan. It’s an effective choice that speaks to the merits of restraint—a virtue which the film, unfortunately, forgets by the third act. Raised in the outskirts of New Orleans, with the twang and tattoos (and criminal record) typical of a certain archetype of country boy, Antonio has a very clear sense of himself in one regard and is yet in a constant identity crisis in another, utterly estranged from his own Asianness. When he crosses paths with another Asian person (Vietnamese, not Korean) by pure happenstance, he is as intrigued yet cluelessly awkward as his 5-year-old white stepdaughter in striking up a conversation, as both have comparable experience interacting with Asian people beyond himself. Chon gives a remarkable performance as Antonio. It is often the quieter moments that are able to communicate the most, and it’s a pity that the script he also penned doesn’t have as much faith in this character and his story as it should.
Both deeply engrained in his local community and yet in other regards a perennial outsider, the film finds the restless Antonio at a crossroads in his life in more than one regard. Expecting his first child with wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, perhaps enticed into a rather straightforward steel-spined supportive wife role by the prospect of trying out a Cajun-seasoned Southern drawl) and proud adoptive dad to her young daughter Jessie from a previous relationship, Antonio wants more from his life and career but feels utterly stuck. He’s not especially passionate about his job as a tattoo artist and the clients are hardly pouring in—he’s not even making enough to stay on top of his station fees—but he also has few prospects elsewhere. He’s excellent with motorcycles but doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of channeling his skill into a legitimate source of income due to prior convictions for stealing motorcycles. Money is tight enough that in spite of nearing her due date, Kathy returns to work as a rehabilitation nurse because Antonio is unable to find an additional source of income.
In addition to money troubles and Antonio’s longstanding mourning for his lack of connection to his roots, only made more prominent by the impending birth of his own child, there’s drama from Kathy’s past rearing its ugly head. Namely Ace (Mark O’Brien), her ex and Jessie’s biological father. A narcissistic, insecure man deeply jealous of Antonio’s relationship with Jessie, Ace also happens to be a police officer not above using the authority of his badge to settle personal scores. His partner, Denny (Emory Cohen), however, takes villainy to a completely different and cartoonish level; he lacks a mustache to twirl or a goatee to stroke, but the same energy is there.
When Ace and Denny happen to cross paths with Antonio and Cathy at a grocery store, a run-of-the-mill couple’s spat spirals out of control after Ace decides to get involved in uniform; when Antonio rises to the bait, Ace is ready to strike. But while he sees it as a chance to ruin Antonio and Kathy’s day, Denny’s more of a long-term bastard. He contacts ICE (presumably his instinctive reflex in dealing with non-white people and not because of foreknowledge of Antonio’s situation), which uncovers that Antonio, like thousands of other adopted Americans, was not properly naturalized by his adoptive parents, and is now facing deportation—a nightmare scenario of which Antonio himself had been previously unaware.
Chon really takes a “more is more” approach to Blue Bayou, and for a while it works, in that mystifying way that the melodramas of Pedro Almodóvar work in spite of cramming in more plot and twists than an individual film should be able to cover. But Chon’s film reaches a point where the scales tip, and suddenly it doesn’t quite work anymore, but the script just keeps on piling pain anyway until it starts to feel like cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Perhaps it comes down to how the best of Almodóvar’s work keeps all the soap-opera-like twists and turns tightly aligned to a central theme, while Blue Bayou’s punches start flying from every which way. When I started describing this film to a friend, she joked, “You forgot the cancer storyline.” And then I had to tell her about the cancer storyline, because, dear reader, this has one of those too. It truly doesn’t need it, but it’s there. Along with domestic abuse, attempted infanticide, and a cop who actually has the lame-duck redemption arc Sam Rockwell’s character from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was accused of having four years ago.
The inherent horror and tragedy of Antonio’s situation do not require extraordinary circumstances, and yet the film frustratingly undervalues the strength of its core storyline, compounding tragedy on top of tragedy to a degree that becomes absurd. The real-life issue is a heartbreaking systemic failure, but Blue Bayou fails to fully reckon with this because Antonio’s case is given so many extenuating circumstances. By the end, it becomes a very specific tragedy that would never have happened if not for the string-pulling of an evil cop named Denny—a choice to not let a particular court scene actually play out for reasons I won’t spoil is particularly frustrating—instead of shining a light on the outrageous apathy of a broken system that generates tragedies on autopilot, no Dennys required.
The only way to describe the third act of Blue Bayou is to compare it to when San Diego accidentally set off all of its Fourth of July fireworks at the exact same time back in 2012—it does everything all at once in a very loud and confused fashion such each individually compelling element loses all meaning in a gigantic smoky flash-bang. That being said, even as the plot somehow implodes and explodes at the same time, Blue Bayou still looks gorgeous; cinematographers Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng deserve nothing but credit for this one. With its strong visual storytelling, solid performances all around, and highlighting of a real-life travesty that I will admit that I myself was woefully ignorant of beforehand, there are definitely still reasons to check out Blue Bayou. Still, buried in this mixed bag is a great film here buckling under the weight of too many fix-ins, and it’s a real shame.
Blue Bayou is playing in select theaters as of Sept. 17, 2021.
Header Image Source: Focus Features