“Blue Bayou” is much more than a character study. It’s a study of our social and criminal justice system in today’s volatile world where your skin color and/or race makes you a target for deportation. Written, directed, and starring Justin Chon as Antonio, a Korean immigrant adopted here in the United States at the age of 3, fights to combat his heritage and his past while trying to save his marriage, his step-daughter, and the future of his unborn daughter as well as his own.
Chon’s heartfelt performance lets us inside, opening the doors to a world most of us probably never will know. Antonio is poor and has a record. Living in poverty with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and adorable daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Anthony desperately searches for a new and better paying job, but with a felony record, he can’t outrun his past. His optimism turns inwardly into pain and hopelessness, but never will he let his family know he has failed. When a chance argument is interrupted by Kathy’s ex-husband, a cop with less than stellar virtues and a moralistically bankrupt partner, Antonio finds himself incarcerated by ICE and a daunting fight to correct the oversight of paperwork stamping him as a Korean citizen, not an American one.
The cards are stacked against Antonio from the beginning and we realize this even more as the story unfolds … he never had a fighting chance. His decisions and others’ reactions based in prejudice create a never-ending and vicious cycle in which he is embedded. From a broken juice system to police abuse of power, “Blue Bayou” punctuates that the American Dream has become a nightmare for this family.
Cinematically, this is pure poetry. Using artistry of foggy memories intertwined in the story’s narrative, we begin to understand the ghosts that haunt this Korean man. We also begin to understand the barriers that his life built, unbeknownst to him. Identity and belonging are key components to his persona, both of which were built on a shaky foundation. Unable to connect with his past and finding a formidable future, Antonio is never fully able to understand himself, what’s broken, and most importantly, how to fix it and move forward in a positive direction.
Chon is the heart and soul of this film, giving a finely-tuned and evocative portrayal of a shattered man held together by tenuous material and a man whose goodness oozes from these crevices only to be obliterated with the ugliness of hatred. And Chon surrounds himself with a small, but incredibly talented ensemble cast who allow this cinema verite style of film to give the story complete credibility as a possible true tale; we are flies on the wall watching Chon’s “Antonio” live this small but pivotal portion of his life. Sydney Kowalske gives us a heartbreakingly authentic performance as Jessie, Antonio’s young daughter. Their relationship is natural and the camera captures every beautiful moment. Equally genuine is Chon and Vikander whose understated performance is sheer perfection. Together, they are a family. A real family. And like real families, there’s a disapproving mother-in-law, an angry ex-husband (Mark O’Brien) and another bad egg in the law enforcement world. Never, thanks to realistic writing, insightful directions, deft performances, and intuitive camera work, does this feel forced or contrived. The story washes over you like a gentle wave until you’re soaked in the plight of the situation, more fully understanding what thousands of adopted immigrants may have experienced over the last 50 years.
“Blue Bayou” has a brutal yet realistic ending that reminds us of not just our flawed deportation laws but the adoption laws that failed to protect the innocent. Chon’s skills allow him to wear the three different hats — star, director, writer — and do so with definitive finesse.