From: Silver Screen

REVIEW: ‘Blue Bayou’ honestly examines the struggles of undocumented Asian immigrants

 REVIEW: ‘Blue Bayou’ honestly examines the struggles of undocumented Asian immigrants
(L to R) Actor Alicia Vikander, actor Sydney Kowalske and actor/writer/director Justin Chon on the set of BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release.

In “Blue Bayou,” writer, director and actor Justin Chon delivers an emotional rollercoaster that tackles issues of immigration policy injustice, what it means to be American and police brutality.

Examined through the lens of Antonio LeBlanc (Chon), a Korean adoptee, the film begins in New Orleans and focuses on Antonio’s conflicts with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). Because Antonio was adopted before natural citizenship to adoptees was granted in the U.S., his status as an illegal immigrant threatens the life he has established with his wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a southern white woman, and his step-daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Antonio also has a criminal history and can’t find a well-paying job: Antonio is a composite of many of the working class, and in his case, uneducated people in the United States. 

Seeing Antonio play and bond with his step-daughter was an effective way to create sympathy for his situation and humanize his family; it’s one of few happy moments in the movie. But from here, the tone of the movie is set: happiness comes in fleeting moments, but eventually, pain and hardship remain inevitable. With its focus on undocumented Asian immigrants, the film puts forth a unique story that many people aren’t aware of and therefore don’t frequently discuss. 

Graphic and gut-wrenching scenes that address police brutality and bias force viewers to visualize this very real experience. Kathy’s ex-husband is a police officer whose partner is so bigoted that he definitively stands as a trope of the racist, biased police officer. Inside a store, Antonio is brutally beaten with a nightstick and arrested by the very same cop. Through slow-motion action and camera work that follows Antonio’s point of view, the helplessness, aggression and fear shared by each character are incredibly honest and felt. Seeing the reaction of his white stepdaughter as she witnesses this abuse creates intense pain and empathy for us, as much as for her and Kathy.

As the film progresses, the characters begin to represent certain ideas that are common in the political landscape: Kathy represents people who can’t understand why the immigration system is unfair and comes from a place of both privilege and good intentions. When she tells Antonio that he has a right to be in the United States, she critiques how society determines what an American is or how they look like. 

His mother-in-law, however, holds an anti-immigrant stance and says that he is not American because he is a person of color. When the news comes that he may be deported to Korea, she believes it is the right outcome. The film’s core messages are incredibly indicative of the divide and polarization towards immigrants in the country. 

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A lovely contrast to this point is an immigrated Vietnamese woman, Parker (Linh Dan Pham): she is connected to her family roots and history, and her father and extended family are fortunate enough to not have to go through what Antonio’s family does. Parker contributes a key concept of solidarity and comfort in identity in the Asian American community; she can empathize with Antonio even though on some levels they both come from different backgrounds.

The ability to meaningfully reflect and process what is going on is, unfortunately, difficult because Chon has so many messages and melodramatic plotlines that many nuances become lost in the sea. From abandonment and the adoptee experience to internal conflict and ultimately a family tragedy, so much is trying to fit into a two-hour runtime. An impactful behind-the-scenes clip before the credits, however, showed photos of real adoptees from Korea who were/are scheduled to be deported, truly grounding the film into reality. 

Overall, the acting in “Blue Bayou” is phenomenal and the plot elicits a very clear message of the struggles and issues in the U.S. The actors can seamlessly transition from upbeat scenes to tragic ones, and both their performance and the film’s cinematography renders so naturally and invokes feelings and experiences that are uniquely human.

“Blue Bayou” will be released in theaters on Sept. 17, 2021. 

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