Blue Bayou is Justin Chon’s fourth directorial feature, a commanding addition to his industry antithetic corpus. Justin leads the film as Antonio Leblanc, a blue-collar American struggling to provide for his expectant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and young stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). A confrontation between Antonio and Kathy’s ex, police officer Ace (Mark O’Brien), leads to his arrest. Prior felony convictions for theft and his adoptive parents not formalizing citizenship paperwork after his adoption from Korea at age three, Antonio is ordered to be deported despite living in America nearly all his life.
Produced by MACRO, an entertainment and media company focused on diverse storytelling helmed by former WME power agent Charles King has developed some of the most critically acclaimed films (Fences, Sorry to Bother You, Judas and the Black Messiah, Just Mercy) since launching in 2015. Justin believed MACRO was the right advocate for this film about a Korean American adoptee battling poverty, racism, and the justice system, “It’s hard for people to understand why or how to make this film. I knew Charles would get it right away.”
Justin is exceptionally dynamic as the patriarch of this growing family, a performance encapsulating his dedication to telling this story. “It was not my intention to be in it. It was hard enough writing and directing, but I had lived with the character for so long. If this movie does well and gets the right type of attention, it could change legislation. It’s hard to ask an actor to be a part of that after the film is done. Also, if the film doesn’t go well, I wanted to take responsibility and not blame anyone other than myself. I really wanted to do justice to the adoptee community, specifically the adoptee community facing deportation or who have been deported. I’ll take it whatever the outcome is.”
Antonio is a character that challenges the typical Asian archetypes seen in film. He isn’t a trope or a caricature, but a character based on real Americans. “It was about normalizing people like him that exist in these pockets of the United States,” he says. The film is a rare example showcasing an Asian American character speaking with a regional southern American accent. Playing this character required extensive work with dialect coach Eliza Simpson to achieve an authentic Louisiana cadence. “We modeled the accent after three specific people from the regions I wanted to accentuate. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t offend anyone who was actually from there. I wanted to respect the reality of it.”
Like his other work, Blue Bayou presents the hostile interactions between different ethnic groups in America and the deep connections found within our communities. After a lifetime of displacement in the foster care system, Antonio finds kinship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese American woman. For Justin, “Representing other ethnicities in the same community and making sure that we tell each other’s stories will create more solidarity. It’s important to me.” Positive relationships between people of different marginalized groups are hardly recognized, another element that makes Blue Bayou one of the most compelling American stories ever made for the silver screen.
Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose book inspired the 2019 film Just Mercy attests, “I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. That the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice. That the character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich and privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and condemned.” Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou is a film that not only exposes injustice but asks what it means to be an American.
This film is a must watch. Blue Bayou is in theaters September 17, 2021.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features