SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains minor details about Blue Bayou. Read at your own risk!
With Blue Bayou, actor and filmmaker Justin Chon isn’t just giving us a family drama, he is giving a bookend to a family saga that’s epic in emotion but very intimate in scope.
The saga started in 2017 when Chon started his journey as a Sundance darling auteur with his L.A. riots feature Gook Two years later he would premiere the sibling drama at the Park City fest and would reveal that he was quietly stringing together a trilogy of films that unpacked the nuances and complexities of familial relationships.
Chon’s trifecta of family dramas ends with Blue Bayou. Making its debut at Cannes earlier this year and written, directed and starring Chon, the film goes beyond the family drama of it all and shines a disturbingly glaring spotlight on the deportation of international adoptees who were unaware that they were not U.S. citizens.
In Blue Bayou Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean adoptee raised in a small town in the Louisiana bayou. He is married to the love of his life Kathy (Alicia Vikander, who turns it out in this film) and step-dad to their beloved daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, who also delivers an amazing performance). When he finds out he runs the risk of being deported and being separated from his family, his struggle spirals as he must confront a past he would rather forget.
As immigration remains a consistent hot button topic and an issue that divides, Chon dives deep into an issue that many do not know exists. Now is a better time than ever to bring this to light. In real life, there are thousands of adults who were adopted as children from international countries who now face deportation. Because their adoptive parents unkowningly didn’t fill out the right paperwork or check a box on an application, these adults will be forced to leave the only country they ever called home.
Blue Bayou packs a wallop of a punch to the gut as Chon shows his growth as filmmaker, delivering a drama drenched in the humid weight of anxiety-ridden emotion and a frustrating bullshit policy set by the U.S. government.
Diaspora talked to Chon about the journey of Blue Bayou, its emotional impact and the real-life adoptees who have seen the film and what they thought.
DIASPORA: Blue Bayou unveils this issue that so many international adoptees face across the country. Many may not even know that this is happening — I sure as hell didn’t. As you developed the story, did it change based on what you learned about the issue?
JUSTIN CHON: So that is the purpose of the film… is to shed light on that particular issue. That’s the core. And then it’s building on top of it. I wanted to talk about the topic of adoptee identity and servicing that community. There’s this unjust thing is happening where adoptees are getting deported. I wanted to bring empathy to somebody that’s going through that.
With these other tangential things, to build on top of that like Vietnamese community in New Orleans, which makes Antonio introspective about where he came from and what it could be like going back to somewhere he doesn’t really know much about. He meets a dying Vietnamese woman (Linh Dan Pham) and that makes him really be introspective rather than being reactive.
He can’t possibly think his life is worse than someone who is dying, so that makes him have to take a step back and think.
And then there’s dealing with a family in an interracial marriage. How does that also inform the experience of being an adoptee from the south and the process of deportation? But it all starts with what is the purpose of the film. Which is to bring awareness to this issue.
DIASPORA: This is a heavy film and the ending may not be one that people would expect. Was there any point you wanted to make this a “feel good” movie considering all that’s going on in the world?
As much as I’d like to do a movie like that, no. It was never a consideration because I really needed people walking out of this film to be not let off the hook. With all of my films, I want the audience to go home and think about them again. I will say though, there was some not push back, but just conversation. People were like, “Is there any way you can give hope? Is there more?”
I felt like I did give hope because Antonio’s fulfilling his responsibilities. I mean, that’s hopeful and also doing what he feels is right is hopeful for his family. I think that’s incredibly helpful. But for me personally, I think that this was the only way to sort of leave the film so that audiences have to think about this issue in a critical way.
DIASPORA: At the end of the film, pictures of real-life adoptees who are at risk of being deported are shown on the screen. This includes Kristopher Larsen and Anissa Druesedow of the organization Adoptees for Justice. Have any of them seen the film and what was their reaction?
CHON: I have screened it for Kris and I spoke to Anissa. It was a very emotional experience for them and they are appreciative. The other thing is they are very appreciative about that ending. They were like, “Yeah, this cannot be made okay and it doesn’t represent what we actually go through.” This is not something that ends well in a lot of cases, so they were appreciative of that. They were also appreciative of not making him a saint and making him human.
I’ve done the best I can to be as respectful and authentic to their experiences as possible and hopefully they feel there is more sort of rights in an authentic aspects to it. But what I know for sure is the intention of this film is hopefully for the right people to see it and for there to be a conversation. And maybe if it gets enough traction that maybe some of these people can stay or be brought back.
DIASPORA: From Gook to Ms. Purple to Blue Bayou — all these films were very personal to you. You are not an adoptee, but how did you fold your own experiences into the story?
CHON: I’ll never understand what it feels like to be an adoptee, but I do know what it feels like to be considered other. Like being born in this country you’re constantly asked “where are you from?” But then when you go to where you’re supposed to be from, they go, “Oh, you’re not Korean. You’re American.” So that idea of like, “okay, where are you supposed to be then? Where do I actually belong?” — it’s that sort of dilemma of identity, I think I can relate with that.
So that, in particular, is one way I used to get into it. And then the idea of “what is the idea of being an American?” I can think about that all day. Who gets to decide what is an American? We’re all visitors here and we all come from somewhere else and somewhere along the line, people draw lines in the sand and says, “Well, this is or that is.”
I have my own ideas and that is another way into it. And then, I think those things make its way into the film and I just present it. Then the audience owns it. They take from it what they will.
DIASPORA: As mentioned, it’s a real tough time in the world and Blue Bayou isn’t exactly a “feel-good” movie. Were you concerned with releasing the film during this time — especially during a time when there is a surge of hate crimes against Asians?
CHON: It’s a topic that needs to be exposed sooner than later. Like now. It’s an issue that is going on and the more time that goes by, and when we’re not talking about it, well then it’s more time that is not being resolved. It couldn’t come out soon enough for me.
The whole zeitgeist of it all — I’m not really concerned about that. I’m more concerned about what are the stories that need to be told and how fast can we get them out, especially being Asian-American. We’re just hitting the tip of iceberg about telling stories about our experiences in this country. We don’t have time to think about when the right timing for it. We just got to do it.
I think that there’s so many stories to tell and not enough time. That’s why I’ve been working so fervently for the last five years and putting project after project out. You cut back on the throttle in any way, you don’t go into flight. We need to completely keep pushing forward and charging ahead. That’s the way I view it.