Screenplay and Direction by Justin Chon
Starring Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Sidney Kowalski
America has an immigration problem, but the real issue is not what you think.
It is the country’s openly racist outlook towards its immigration that seeps into the policies regarding the acceptance of people coming from other countries that muddies the national rhetoric.
The current immigration laws are obviously racist both on paper and in their execution. One of the most sickening being the deportations of hundreds of adopted children who are now adults and have been in this country since they were little. This is the only country and life they have ever known, and their domestic identities are being questioned and argued in the biased immigration court system.
To accept the legality of an adoption only to question the citizenship of the spores decades later is unfathomable and a moral disgrace on a national level.
Regarding immigration, the United States is a country that is tearing good families apart and throwing long upstanding Americans into a foreign land they do not know. How will they live? Where will they go? What will become if the families they leave behind? The American government just does not seem to care.
Writer/director/actor Justin Chon sets his sights high in his exploration of this issue through the eyes and life of one man in his new drama, “Blue Bayou”.
Chon stars as Antonio, a Louisiana tattoo artist and stepfather to his wife Kathy’s young 7-year-old daughter Jessie. He and Kathy are happy and have a baby on the way. They are struggling financially. Kathy is a nurse but Antonio does not make enough giving tattoos and is having a tough time finding work due to two felony theft convictions.
Things are tight but the the two are happy and little Jesse adores her stepfather, the only father she is ever known.
Jessie’s biological dad is a local policeman named Ace (Mark O’Brien) who abandoned Kathy and his baby daughter years ago. Now he has been wanting to see his little girl, but Jessie is frightened and refuses, as she doesn’t know him at all.
Ace and his blatantly racist partner (Emory Cohen) run into the family at a grocery store. Ace wants to see his daughter and resents the very presence of Antonio. Kathy asks Ace to go away, his partner harasses Antonio, everything escalates, and Antonio is arrested.
Horrifyingly, Antonio is turned over to ICE and it comes to light that his citizenship was never completed. On paper, he is in the country illegally and he is set to be deported back to Korea.
So far so good. Chon’s tale has a natural tone in its domestic scenes between Antonio, Kathy, and Jesse and watching him struggle emotionally with finding work to support his family will be relatable to so many on this current pandemic-affected economic climate.
Alicia Vikander and Chon have an organic chemistry. Their scenes together feel lived in and real. There is almost no question that these two ha e been together for years.
Vikander is quite good and continues reclaim the good graces of her 2016 Oscar win for Supporting Actress in “The Danish Girl”. Since that win, the actress wasted her talents with a string of subpar Action films before returning to strong character work in good films over the last couple of years.
The Swedish actress flawlessly pulls of a Louisiana drawl without overwhelming the character with the accent. The role of Kathy is one of heartbreak and determination and Vikander is certainly worthy of a nomination here, baring the soul of this woman who just wants to be happy and keep her husband on the straight and narrow.
As Antonio, Chon is fantastic. This is a tortured man who just wants to live his life and love his family. To be a good father and husband is all he desires, but the country keeps pushing back.
With his sweet smile and kind demeanor that are continuously fighting against giving into to a personal pain, Chon’s performance is quite powerful. It is an absolute shame that he lets his damningly manipulative screenplay and overwrought filmmaking bring him down. And after a very good first act, down hard the film does fall.
The film’s sincerity gives way to melodrama and throws subtly out the window.
The two cops are presented as one note. Ace’s partner is a loudmouth and wears his racism on his sleeve. He is not so much a caricature (Look around. Most racists are not exactly Harvard educated) but Cohen doesn’t really know what else to do with him, or perhaps it is the fault of the screenplay.
Ace is the normal jealous husband who uses his job as a policeman to hang a misguided authority over his ex-wife and Antonio’s heads. He shows up and barks lines at them both in a few scenes and that is all we get to know about him. When Ace is allowed a half-assed redemption by film’s end, it comes off as inept and completely phony. The actor nor the film can sell the moment.
The moment where Antonio returns (for one night only) to stealing motorcycles to fund his expensive lawyer (the always good Vondie Curtis Hall) does not ring as true as it should, and the scene of the theft is badly executed.
Antonio meets a dying woman, Parker (a sweet Linh Dan Pham), and the two strike up a connection. In the film’s purist moment, she invites him and Kathy and Jesse to her family’s cookout. This is a wonderful scene of culture and peace where Antonio is surrounded but others who have immigrated to America and live good lives. The experience moves both the character and the audience. Chon’s entire film should have sustained this kind of intimacy and truth so naturally.
The scenes between Parker and Antonio are well played and settle the rough seas of the film’s tone, but once again it all comes crashing down in Parker’s last scene (this is not a spoiler. If you cannot see her fate coming, you have never been to the movies). She takes one final motorcycle ride with Antonio, freeing herself from constraints and breathing in life. The moment is constructed so dramatically ham fisted that it becomes eye rolling, ruining anything profound.
As director, Chon gives his film a good look (although he must learn to keep his camera still). Antonio is haunted by memories of his birth mother and a lake in Korea. As he stands among the bayous looking out to the water and his uncertain future, the blending of the past and present is artfully represented in these images. The scenes where he looks out over the water to a nighttime New Orleans all lit up like a not-too-distant oasis continue the striking visual mood.
Cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang properly capture the grit of the Louisiana areas where the film takes place. Yet again however, the filmmaker ruins the power of these great shots, using them again and again and again. How many times must we see Antonio in silhouette staring off into the distance while pondering his fate? The answer is apparently, a lot. To quote Mark Twain, “Too much of anything is bad.”
By the time we reach the film’s climax (which I shall not reveal), buckle up. The denouement is one of the most unoriginal and overwrought examples of filmmaker wanting nothing more than to make their audience weep. The scene is jaw-dropping in its dramatic betrayal of the characters and the audience’s investment in them. It is so utterly awful that I still cannot fathom why Chon would end his film in such a manner.
“Blue Bayou” raises many important issues and subjects that demand to be explored. The message held within this film is one of urgency and this story needs to be told. It is a shame that Chon’s important intentions are crushed under the weight of monotonous Soap Opera level dramatics.
Justin Chon’s earnestness, two great lead performances, a good first act, and an important political and social essence fail to save this one.
R, 117 Minutes, Focus Features