What does it mean to be an American? The question reverberates throughout every frame of Blue Bayou, the new film from Ms. Purple and Gook director Justin Chon, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. The American identity is the Theseus’ ship dilemma that vexes Blue Bayou: Is Americanness intrinsic, or can it be learned? A feeling or a legal status? Who counts as a “real” American? And most centrally and poignantly, can it be taken away?
Stunning and moving, even if at times melodramatic, Blue Bayou is the story of a young father navigating the hopeless labyrinth of American immigration policy. Born in Korea and adopted by white foster parents in St. Francisville, Louisiana, Antonio le Blanc (Chon) has made a thoroughly American life for himself, freelancing at a tattoo parlor and hurtling through the streets of New Orleans on a motorcycle. He’s even a husband to a warm yet steely woman named Kathy (Alicia Vikander, with an on-and-off Southern accent), stepfather to a sweet girl named Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), and father-to-be to an unborn baby girl. Given the life he has made, it comes as a total shock when, after a scuffle with Kathy’s former police officer husband Ace (Mark O’Brien) and his cartoonishly racist partner (Emory Cohen), Antonio is suddenly threatened with deportation. With a baby on the way and a life in jeopardy, Antonio and Kathy enter the fierce legal battle to keep Antonio on American soil.
Blue Bayou is admittedly not a subtle movie, full of obvious metaphors and occasionally stilted dialogue. Though young Sydney Kowalske’s performance is admirable, she’s tasked with delivering lines that are obviously the concoction of a screenwriter: “It’s okay, she’s your kid,” Jessie says frankly, “You’re supposed to love her more. You’ll leave me like Ace did.” Apart from this, though, Chon treats the subjects of Blue Bayou with real, considered intimacy in a way that suggests lived experience. Though it’s a drama about navigating a complicated legal system, it’s never a dull film, as Chon expertly balances genuinely suspenseful action sequences and scenes of heart-rending tenderness that make his characters as real to us as the list of real deported adoptees that precede the credits. Perhaps its topicality is what makes the film so unsubtle—it’s as blunt and forceful as the harsh reality it depicts.
There is nothing subtle, after all, about the metaphors of fighting for citizenship; the themes of belonging and homeland are writ large on the act itself. As Antonio confronts his Americanness, he also wrestles with the fact of his Asianness—the involuntary trait that marks him as an easy target for attack and as a candidate to be interrogated on the premise of his race before his merit during a job interview by a faceless interlocutor. He’s as wedded to his American identity as he is estranged from his Asianness, which he discovers through a happenstance friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese-American woman who is dying of cancer. Parker is Antonio’s ticket into Asian America, inviting his family to a barbecue with her family and introducing him to a kind of cultural awareness and belonging that often precedes adulthood. Though her scenes are comparatively limited, Pham is a welcome presence onscreen, a contrapuntal figure of humanity and decency in a film already so heavily saturated with human cruelty and detachment.
Yet Antonio does have blurry memories of his homeland, and though his conscious wish is to stay with his family in the States, he can’t shake the arresting images that float on the surface of his memory like water lilies—an old lullaby his mother used to sing and a recurrent image of baptism, which Chon makes a meal out of. In these scenes, the director works in vivid color, taking a watercolor-like approach to these flashbacks; elsewhere, he employs a Hong Kong noir, step-printing technique that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wong Kar-Wai film. There are lots of blues and reds, another heavy-handed choice for a film so predominantly about America.
But America is not a place of subtleties; rather, it’s a country where the binary of those who belong and those who don’t has always been starkly apparent. Unlike the family that Antonio finds and cherishes, citizenship is not about choice, but legal status—not about the associations we choose, but the ones we are born into. The greatest tragedy is that although Antonio has chosen, America has not chosen him back.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release Blue Bayou on September 17, 2021.
Image courtesy of Focus Features