Cinema - as with most culture - is reactionary. It typically dabbles in issues and stories that reflect our social landscape at any given time, but with that comes a responsibility. When the issue of immigration in the United States was uncomfortably thrust into the spotlight during Donald Trump's presidency, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would catch up to tell those stories. 'Blue Bayou' does exactly this, trying desperately to toe the line between entertaining melodrama and relevant social commentary on a serious issue... with varying success.
Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon, 'Ms. Purple') is a perpetually down-stricken Korean man who was adopted and raised in Louisiana from a young age. While his job at the local tattoo parlour is barely enough for Antonio to make ends meet, his happiness with pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, 'Tomb Raider') and precocious stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) is enough to keep him afloat. However, after a racially-motivated altercation in a grocery store with Kathy's deadbeat police officer ex Ace (Mark O'Brien, 'Marriage Story') and his partner Denny (Emory Cohen, 'Flashback'), Antonio's arrest alerts him to an incredibly unjust but very real loophole in U.S. immigration laws that the film declares has claimed thousands of victims. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 guarantees automatic citizenship for both new adoptees to America and previously adopted children; however, adoptees older than 18 at the time of the new law enactment were not protected. As such, Antonio is technically considered an illegal citizen despite his marriage to Kathy and, along with his less-than-stellar criminal record, is suddenly placed in very real danger of being permanently banned from staying in the United States.
Justin Chon plays triple-duty as 'Blue Bayou's' director, writer and lead actor, and while I have my reservations about the way in which the film's events play out, Chon's script thankfully only occasionally dips into bluntness (the opening scene, in which Antonio interviews for a job with an unseen, extremely xenophobic boss, is so transparent that I preemptively braced myself for an underwritten mess). His performance is also nuanced, painting Antonio as a tatted-up vault of long-repressed trauma that can't stay out of trouble despite his best efforts to stay an honest man. Vikander, Chon's immensely talented and previously Oscar-winning co-star, carries some of the most emotional scenes in the film, her southern accent cracking just as much as she does under the pressure of her family potentially being torn apart. Adding to her stress is Ace's sudden decision to be a present parent, lest never seeing Jessie again if Antonio is deported and takes his family with him.
While many have been quick to draw comparisons to the magnificent 'Minari', another portrait Korean struggle in the United States, 'Blue Bayou' actually shares a lot of its DNA with last year's overwrought drama 'Waves'; both are a perfect storm of misery porn and cinematography porn accented by racial hardship. Thank goodness for the stunning 16mm cinematography, honestly, because if it wasn't for the beautiful work of Matthew Chuang ('My First Summer') and Ante Cheng ('Ms. Purple'), 'Blue Bayou' would be a joyless slog - and the film appears to know this too. A number of intense moments, while still striking, are intercut with unrelated money shots of a pink sky or of the bayou, their beauty keeping the film from completely drowning in its own misery.
Unfortunately, the film seems determined to pin Antonio's head under the surface, both literally and figuratively; flashbacks to a traumatic water-related event in Antonio's past pop up throughout the film, mirroring both the film's climax and each new brutal blow the family faces in their efforts to keep Antonio in the country. But even when it seems all is lost, and where most films would give their characters a fighting chance, Chon bends his story to nonsensical new angles. So many of Antonio's hardships could be simply fixed through overcoming pride, or yelling to a character inside a house after being refused entry, or a text to explain a misunderstanding, or even an appeal to a judge when a court date is missed for extremely valid reasons. In a brutal single-take sequence that's one of the film's strongest moments, even Antonio's strong family unit, the single thing he has going for him, blows up in his face. 'Blue Bayou' appears unwilling to give Antonio a fighting chance, nor does Antonio seem interested in allowing himself one; in fact, Kathy co-opts Antonio's fight to stay in the country while her husband is ready to buckle under the pressure. It paints a confusing portrait of a man who, considering his U.S. life is all he has ever known and deportation could mean never seeing his unborn child, is ready to keel over at the first sign of difficulty. And, since apparently Antonio hasn't taken enough blows as a victim of abuse and potential deportee, the only meaningful connection he makes in the film with kind Vietnamese refugee Parker (Linh Dan Pham, 'Ninja Assassin') as is marred by her terminal cancer diagnosis. It's not inspiring to see Antonio struggle to fight racial prejudice and the devastating consequences of circumstances out of his control; it's just depressing. 'Blue Bayou' may not be a horror film, but it's absolutely one of the most feel-bad films of 2021.
It's not inspiring to see Antonio struggle to fight racial prejudice and circumstances out of his control; it's just depressing.
Just as troubling is the way in which laws and law enforcement are depicted in the film, despite the indictment 'Blue Bayou' has the power to make about them and the ideals of the all-elusive "American Dream" they uphold. Before the plot even kicks in, we see one of Antonio's friends and frequent tattoo customers is an ICE agent, instantly humanising and rationalising the kind of officers who we later know will not afford Antonio the same kindness throughout the film. Sickeningly, apart from an eleventh-hour moment of retribution, Denny is also never held to task for his xenophobia and violence, cast off by the film as simply a "bad egg" and not the product of an institution which, as we have plainly seen in the news of late, turns a blind eye to racially-motivated violence. 'Blue Bayou' gives the impression of a passive collection of government systems that are justified in their cruelty and lack of empathy under the guise of "just doing their job." Denny's lines paint him as a caricature, sure, but since 'Blue Bayou' never offers a criticism of law enforcement anywhere else in the film, seeing him suffer consequences is not at all satisfying. At its core, 'Blue Bayou' is an agitprop that forgets the responsibility it has to the victims' lives it explores. While not explicitly based on any one case of adoptee deportation, the film has garnered criticism from real victims of the Child Citizenship Act for sampling the traumatic events of their lives without allowing them to tell their stories themselves, shining a spotlight on the issue while keeping the microphone out of their hands.
'Blue Bayou' is ultimately a conflicting experience, one that pulls violently at its audience's heartstrings until they are sore, but never considers or critiques the full scope of America's inconsistent immigration policies. Perhaps if it spent less time punishing Antonio for circumstances out of his control, it might hit even harder.