Something of a spiritual companion piece to last year’s immigrant story Minari, writer/director/star Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou is the story of a Korean-born man, Antonio LeBlanc (Chon), living in Louisiana in a dangerously unique time in American history—namely, the Trump administration, which took particular glee in deporting undocumented people who had been living in America nearly their entire lives and who believed they were citizens. In Antonio’s case, he came to America very young and was adopted by a woman who never bothered to file the proper paperwork to make him a legal citizen (which he didn’t know). So when he gets into trouble with the police as an adult, the government steps in to deport him.
To make matters infinitely worse, he’s married to an American, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), who has a young daughter from a previous marriage who adores Antonio, and their first child together is on the way. So Antonio is more than desperate to stay right where he is. It doesn’t help that Kathy’s ex is a local cop (Mark O’Brien), who is constantly harassing her to see his daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), more often and believes Antonio is trying to keep them apart as well. The conflict that gets Antonio in trouble involves an altercation with the ex and his racist police partner (Emory Cohen), who has no issues pummeling Antonio with his nightstick in a local grocery store just to make a point.
Not that Antonio’s record was clear before that incident; he was in jail for a time for stealing motorcycles for cash, a racket he is forced back into to earn money for his family when he loses his job as a tattoo artist because he can’t make the payments to keep his station open. He tries to keep the family’s financial hardships a secret from Kathy, but as the lies compound, she begins to figure out that things aren’t right and begs him to be honest.
Being honest and facing the sins and horrors of the past are all themes that permeate Blue Bayou, a surprisingly effective and emotional work; its main through-line revolves around what it means to be an American in the wake of an administration looking to tighten the definitions of Citizen. Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Antonio’s immigration lawyer who lays out the difficult road ahead, including the hard truth that if they lose their case before a judge in an appeal, Antonio is not only deported but he can never reapply for citizenship.
A key connection for Antonio during this crisis is with a Vietnamese-American woman named Parker (Linh Dan Pham), who comes into his parlor for her first tattoo to commemorate her wrapping up chemo therapy for cancer. The two share stories about their lives overseas compared to America, and while their stories are vastly different, there are enough elements to connect them to give Antonio hope. He also realizes that as bad as his life is, he has his health and should be grateful for what he has.
Antonio is told by his lawyer that he should attempt to solicit testimony from his adopted mother to explain that it’s her fault and not his that his citizenship status was never solidified. But he hasn’t spoken to her for years because of the brutal abuse that she allowed at the hands of her husband. He refuses to do it, but eventually his desperation to stay with his family wins out, and it’s a painful and emotionally raw sequence that brings out all of Antonio’s doubt in his own self-worth.
Chon, who directed the 2017 Sundance award-winning film Gook, as well as 2019’s Purple, has a sure hand and eye behind the camera and tells a compelling and tense story quite elegantly. Blue Bayou does not wrap up the way you might expect, and I think I would have disliked it if it had. It acknowledges that America today can be a cruel and horrible place for some who simply want to contribute and live simple lives with their family. As performers, Chon and Vikander are terrific at selling us on the love, frustration and pain that this couple must endure. The portrayal of the ex-husband and his partner are perhaps a bit too villainous, but they also aren’t impossible to fathom as accurate. The movie is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the placid, yet fully alive, bayou setting. And when you hear Vikander belt out a karaoke version of the Roy Orbison and Joe Melson-written song that serves as the film’s title, your heart might melt a little. That goes for the entire movie as well.
Blue Bayou is now playing in theaters.
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