It’s a subject that’s never far from the headlines, yet it’s full of quiet, almost unknown corners. Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou takes us inside an aspect of immigration which is probably unfamiliar to UK audiences but is no less heart breaking. And has echoes of one of our own scandals. Windrush.
Antonio (Chon, who also writes and produces) considers himself an American. His Korean immigrant mother gave him away so he was raised by white parents and, despite a troubled past and some time in jail, he’s managed to turn his life around and works as a tattoo artist in New Orleans. He’s settled down with Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and has become step-father to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske): money may be short, his mother-in-law may not like him, but family life is good. The discovery that he wasn’t legally adopted turns everything upside down. The law says that people of immigrant descent without paperwork are not guaranteed citizenship, no matter how long they’ve been residents, and Antonio faces being deported.
The system tears families apart and there’s little or no chance of appeal. A handful of people who’ve been deported or are awaiting a decision put in brief appearances at the end of the film to reinforce the point and the injustice. It’s the tip of the iceberg. And it’s not subtle. But nor is the issue itself or the film. There are times when it feels like being on the receiving end of an emotional sledgehammer – the blows are faster and more frequent in the final stages of the film – yet it’s hard not to be affected by the humanity of the underlying story and the sight of one solitary man fighting against the system, even if his methods are sometimes questionable.
When it hits the mark, however, its aim is true. Initially, it looks like Jessie’s estranged father, cop Ace (Marc O’Brien), is the villain of the piece, setting the legal ball rolling that could split up Antonio’s family. Desperate to see his little girl – she’s not keen – he allows himself to be influenced by his racist partner Denny (an unrecognisable Emory Cohen). His lightbulb moment has, like the rest of the film, little in the way of nuance but that his character isn’t put into a neat box is a welcome change. The opening scene, which sees Antonio applying for a job in an effort to earn more money – there’s a baby on the way – gives the film a powerful opening, with the off-screen interviewer’s voice laying bare the racism that he faces, despite considering himself an American. The strength of that scene is in its simplicity.
Chon has his hands full with the project, but it doesn’t show in his performance, a likeable guy trying his best but fighting the system and his own painful past. His scenes with the appealing Kowalske paint a convincing father/daughter picture, but it’s Vikander who stands out, vulnerable yet strong and giving one of her best performances. And her karaoke version of the song of the title is one of the film’s best surprises. While it’s moving and sheds light on an important subject, however, Blue Bayou all too often treats its subject with a heavy hand. But you could say the same about the law.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Universal Pictures | Cinemas, 3 December 2021 | Dir. Justin Chon | Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske, Marc O’Brien, Emory Cohen.