Blue Bayou

Director: Justin Chon (USA, Canada). Year of Release: 2021

A job interview in New Orleans. The camera focuses on a tattooed man sitting with a little girl. An unseen interviewer asks him questions. Where are you from? For a small village about an hour’s drive North. No, where were you born? In Korea, but I moved here when I was 3. What are these felonies on your record? The man looks a little embarrassed then eventually admits that they were for motorcycle theft, but that was a long time ago. It appears that the interview is over.

Antonio’s surname is LeBlanc, as he was adopted, though he does not want to talk about his foster parents, and says that they are dead. His wife Kathy is heavily pregnant (we witness the ultrasound which confirms it’s a girl). She has another daughter Jessie, with whom Antonio has a good relationship, but Jessie’s father Ace is a cop and is ringing Kathy all the time demanding visiting rights.

One day, in the supermarket, Antonio and Kathy are having an altercation. She’s upset that he took Jessie out of school to spend the day with her having fun. Ace and his racist partner intervene. When Antonio tries to peacefully walk away, the partner first batons him to the ground, then arrests him. Kathy tries to pick him up from the police station, where she learns that he has been taken away by ICE (the notorious Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Antonio and Kathy visit a lawyer, a black man who is obviously aware of the injustices of the migration system, but has been around for long enough not to give them false hope. He explains that the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 means that it’s hard to deport some people who have been adopted in the US. However, as Antonio was adopted in the 1980s, he isn’t covered by the Act. And it seems that his foster parents never got round to registering him as a US citizen.

The lawyer offers Antonio two choices. Either leave the country and apply for asylum, or stay and appeal. But if the appeal loses, he will be deported with no chance of ever returning. As Antonio is not the sole provider for any children and has a criminal record, his best chance lies in finding “acceptable” character witnesses. This could mean a reconciliation with his estranged foster mother, but he resolutely rejects the idea of even considering this option.

Meanwhile, Antonio has come into with a Vietnamese woman Parker, who becomes a mother figure to him. Parker comes with a tragic back story – she is dying of cancer, and carries grim memories of fleeing Vietnam. Her father divided up the family and put them into two boats, so that at least some of them would survive. One boat made it, the other didn’t.

There is a lot going on in Blue Bayou, which quite a few critics reacted to badly. For me, the film is so well-structured that the sheer amount of subplots (I haven’t even mentioned the raid on a motorbike shop) never worried me. Each is coherent and moving, and you’re never confused about who is doing what. The different stories of misery are not overstated, but you get the sense of a system that is weighted against people who are from a certain class and ethnic background.

About half way through the film, Antonio and Kathy attend a garden party, and Kathy sings the title song, best know to most people for the Roy Orbison version. The performance does not of itself move the plot forward significantly, but the lyrics are very pertinent for some of the stories that we see on screen:

Saving nickles, saving dimes
Working til the sun don’t shine
Looking forward to happier times
On Blue Bayou

Blue Bayou came up on me unexpected. I hadn’t knowingly heard any press discussion of the film, and what I’ve read since seems mainly unimpressed. This is all a bit disappointing, as I found the film a superb effort with substance and depth. All the characters are flawed, but each is more or less sympathetic for some of the time. Well, apart from the one who is just a complete bastard.

There are certainly areas which you can criticize, not least Antonio’s mate who works for ICE. Even here, many critics seem to spend more time claiming that having a racist cop is a bit much, but not asking just why this ICE worker doesn’t seem to know what the institution actually does every day. In addition, while the ending doesn’t descend into Hollywood implausibility, the sentimentality does stretch credibility in its own way.

And yet for all that, this is a surprizingly compelling film. Special credit to Justin Chon who directs, wrote the script and plays Antonio, but this is an ensemble effort where it feels a little churlish to pick out individual performances. The end credits show photographs of several people who have indeed been deported although they were adopted as children in the US. The fact that Blue Bayou brings attention to this crime is enough to justify the film – all the better that it works artistically.

Go see.

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