What you need to know
Asian American director Justin Chon’s latest film offers an artistic take on a tragic loophole in U.S. immigration law—but how will Biden-era America receive it?
After World War II and the Korean War, Americans began adopting children from abroad in large numbers. However, despite having fully American upbringings, these transnational adoptees did not automatically receive citizenship.
While the 2000 Child Citizenship Act tried to rectify the issue, it contained an unfortunate loophole that has left at least 15,000 adult adoptees without U.S. citizenship. Especially over the past decade, many of these adoptees have been deported back to their countries of origin — often with tragic results, as they struggle to adapt to “homelands” they’ve never known.
Korean American filmmaker Justin Chon brings the plight of these adoptees to life in his mournfully artistic Cannes selection Blue Bayou. Chon directs the film and stars as its protagonist, a Korean adoptee named Antonio LeBlanc.
We first meet LeBlanc as he’s applying for a job at a motorcycle repair shop. “Where are you from?” the faceless interviewer asks offscreen. It’s a classic Asian American belonging trope, plastered right in your face. With a southern drawl, LeBlanc explains he’s from a small town in Louisiana, but then tells the interviewer what they really want to hear — that he was born in South Korea, and adopted by an American family at age three.
LeBlanc doesn’t get the job. He has two felonies, both for stealing motorcycles. With no other options, he plods along as a tattoo artist, idling about in a rented parlor slot amid a drought of clientele. Life’s tough, but at least LeBlanc has found belonging in a loving, budding family. There’s his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), stepdaughter Jessie, and an unborn baby on the way as well.
Jessie clings to LeBlanc, who dotes on her with a sweetness that contrasts with his tough, tattooed exterior. This incurs the jealousy of Jessie’s biological father — a local cop named Ace — whose patrol partner ends up inciting a scuffle that lands LeBlanc back in trouble with the law.
This new addition to LeBlanc’s rap sheet triggers the film’s tragedy. Because LeBlanc’s adoptive parents never registered his citizenship, he now faces deportation to Korea on account of his criminal record. Desperate to stay with Kathy and Jessie and avoid being ripped away from the only country he’s ever known, LeBlanc must confront past trauma in order to build a case against deportation.
During the Trump administration, deportations and immigration enforcement were huge targets of American liberal outrage. Blue Bayou caters very well to that sentiment, laying it thick with big ticket triggers. Beyond Asian Americans getting asked “Where are you from?” the film features racist white cops, ICE detention centers, immigration courts, and constant reminders around the visible and invisible trauma of family separations. If you want to feel immigration injustice coursing through your veins, Blue Bayou will give you everything you need and more.
Alas, the U.S. is no longer in the Trump era (at least for now). After four years of Trump, Americans have become desensitized to pitched battles over deportations and abolishing ICE, and all the associated pathos. American liberals — the most logical target audience for Blue Bayou — seem to have given themselves permission to take a break from being angry. In their eyes, America has elected “boring Biden” and is back to “normal” again; getting up in arms about family separations has become passé. It’s no wonder that many liberal elite tastemakers have labeled Blue Bayou as overwrought.
While the American left’s activist ardor has flagged, Justin Chon’s clearly hasn’t. Beyond the plot’s emotional power, it feels like he’s pulled out all the cinematographic stops he knows in an attempt to penetrate his intended audience’s complacency. Blue Bayou is resplendent in a way that represents a culmination of craft that Chon has cultivated through his previous works Gook and Ms. Purple. Like those predecessors, Blue Bayou deftly deploys color and lighting to communicate its mood; it lives in the melancholy, dazzling palettes of dawns and dusks. Soulful jazz notes warble in the background, complementing landmarks like the Crescent City Connection to paint a multilayered Louisiana mise en scène.
Yet, such exquisitely mournful beauty is probably not the best way to solve for desensitization. America’s mainstream liberals are eating up brainless “ambient entertainment” a la Emily in Paris; it’s like they’ve temporarily lost their taste for fine art after a year of Covid. Even when they do want art, Biden-era American liberals probably pine for the halcyon days of Hamilton: why deal with some depressing immigration drama when you can wash history through representational diversity, and triumphantly imagine an idealized America that has never existed?
In this sense, Blue Bayou is a bit like its main character. Despite being bred in the canon of American liberalism, it struggles to belong there. The film is heartfelt, authentic, and important. It brings attention to a matter that still plagues U.S. immigration law regardless of who’s in power — with end credits featuring the names and faces of a litany of real transnational adoptees who’ve been deported or currently face deportation. However, it leans into a pitched emotiveness and artistry that is one step behind the times, and suffers for it amid the slings and arrows of cinematic taste.
There is a silver lining though. While the current American sociopolitical environment may blunt Blue Bayou’s performance among critics and theatergoers, it is probably more conducive to the actual reform that the film advocates. Bipartisan legislation granting citizenship to adult transnational adoptees was introduced earlier this year and, with a slightly more productive congressional landscape, maybe it won’t fail like previous attempts. Blue Bayou might not end up sweeping the Oscars — but we can at least hope it’ll generate enough buzz to push that bill over the finish line, and win a societal victory sweeter than any cinematic award.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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