Justin Chon on his heartbreaking “Blue Bayou”: “I wanted to do justice to the adopted community”
From the director of the acclaimed independent films “Gook” and “Ms. Purple”, “Blue Bayou” tells the story of a quintessentially American family faced with a devastating dilemma. Justin Chon directs, writes and stars in the project, located in a vibrant and diverse Louisiana community.
Chon portrays Antonio LeBlanc, an American Korean who was adopted and arrived in the United States at the age of 3, and lived a life of struggle and tragedy. He finds purpose and joy in his family, including his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and young stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). But Antonio stands to lose everything when an incident with a racist local police officer leads to his detention by the ICE, which threatens to deport Antonio due to a complex loophole in immigration policy, although the States- United are the only country he has ever known.
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Through the many challenges and heartbreaking moments of “Blue Bayou”, Antonio’s romantic relationship with his stepdaughter Jessie, and his deep connection with a local Vietnamese woman named Parker (Linh Dan Pham), who finds it hard to come to terms with its own destiny, radiate comfort and warmth. Antonio’s is a fundamentally human story, highlighting the real families who suffer from rigid and dehumanizing immigration policies, the vibrant and expansive South Asian communities, and the diverse faces and histories of adoptees.
“I wanted to do justice to the adoptee community and their experience,” Chon told Salon. His film is dedicated to them, and with guidance from true adoptees, he aims to shatter myths and honor their struggles and experiences.
In an interview with Salon, Chon discussed his approach to bringing the South Asian experience to life, extensive research into the American adoption system, and Antonio’s surprising relationship with a cop and agent. of the ICE in the movie.
“Blue Bayou” is set in Louisiana, where the South is not typically represented with vibrant Asian communities on screen. What was your approach to representing the Asian experience in this part of the country?
This is the reason why I chose New Orleans. As we all know, there’s a huge Vietnamese-American enclave in New Orleans and the South in general, because we’ve all moved to that area, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi. I spent a lot of time there and I have quite a few friends there, so we exist there. And one of my friends, you wouldn’t believe how thick his Louisiana accent is, it is thicker than Antonio’s. It’s about standardizing these things so it’s nothing new. The exposure of it, that can normalize it very quickly.
The other reason is that I wanted two Asian identities in one movie, and I thought it would be great to have a Vietnamese woman and a Korean man and how they intersect in a movie. Usually we’re relegated to only being allowed one ethnicity per movie, and I don’t understand why we’re not allowed to have two and see each other interact in the movies as well. So those are some of the considerations I had.
The “Blue Bayou” press kit reveals that you felt a special connection with Antonio that made you play him yourself. How was this role different from the previous acting roles you played? What did you learn about yourself playing Antonio?
As I wrote and created this, five different adoptees were consultants, and one woman in particular was someone who has always been there for me. This film is for them, it is dedicated to them. I hope that in my performance, I gave an iota of authenticity to their experience. It’s really at the service of them, and I hope our performance represents even a bit of it. In terms of learning, I try to encompass all the things I have amassed through research, and I try to feel and experience these realities firsthand while filming.
“Blue Bayou” exposes an alarming loophole in deportation and points out that many Asian immigrants and adoptees also face deportation. How does this film tell a different story from previous films about the immigrant experience?
When building a movie like this, it wasn’t really a consideration to try to differentiate myself, but just to portray what is honest, true, and genuine. That’s what makes our story so special, is that we all have different experiences, and these are all our individual truths. When you watch “The Farewell” or “Minari” it is the truth and the personal story of Lee Isaac Chung and Lulu Wang.
Speaking of your lengthy search process for the film, what did that involve? What was your collaboration with the film adoption consultants like?
So we had five adopted consultants on board reading the drafts, and I spoke to them at length throughout the process. A wife of these consultants, she’s been really, really there for me. How that research translated into the movie, some examples are when your own child is born as an adoptee, it’s a very emotional moment. It’s the first time in your life that you’ve had someone bloodied to you, so for most adoptees it’s incredibly emotional and we made sure to include them.
And there’s the misconception that maybe the parents of adopted kids didn’t want them or tried to kill them, and that’s a trope. So I made sure to include the fact that Antonio’s mom tried to keep him for as long as she could, which means she probably loved him, and he figured it out, but that ‘was just the circumstances. And then I also consulted lawyers specializing in immigration. So these are some of my main sources of research.
The barbecue night with Parker’s family is such a vibrant and joyful event. What did you want to represent with this gathering of a large Asian family?
I think that was a glimpse for Antonio of what life could be like if he were kicked out, what he might feel about him. It’s also the idea of the family he never had. This puts Antonio and Kathy elsewhere in a situation that is unfamiliar but warm and happy. It’s kind of a front, because they both know tough times are coming. It’s all smiles, but everyone might be faking it. On the Vietnamese side, it’s really the warmth, and also the dynamism of this community in New Orleans. In addition, they have kept their culture intact, even after immigrating.
Parker and Antonio’s trips to the United States are very different, but they are still deeply connected to each other. Why did you want to create this special bond between them?
The Koreans and the Vietnamese, these two countries have fought wars and been involved in wars with lasting impacts. And so naturally, there are links that are created. There are these similarities and the many things that you can relate to each other. So, I just wanted to make sure that this bond between them is created.
Antonio’s relationship with his young stepdaughter Jessie is a bright, happier part of an otherwise heavy movie. How did you build this very tangible confidence and comfort with your young co-star?
After I hired her, I went to Atlanta to spend a few days with her and her family. Her parents were an important part of the equation, they are the ones who will take care of her after we shoot some intense scenes and make sure she is healthy and safe. And then they all came to New Orleans a few weeks earlier, and we rehearsed. I developed a sense of the game and hopefully made her feel like she had the freedom not to feel like she was failing, the openness to be able to try anything.
Throughout the film Antonio has a distinct Southern accent, as does Kathy, who also gives an iconic singing performance. What training did these performances require of you and Alicia?
I had a dialect coach for a few months, and I actually modeled the accent of three specific people in the area. They aren’t famous people at all, just regular people, so I could make sure the accent was genuine. Alicia’s process involved, well, we both got to New Orleans early. I spent three months there and really wanted to spend time there. Alicia also arrived early. She also worked with a dialect coach and visited real people in the community, and walked the lines that way as well.
“Blue Bayou” appears to criticize US immigration policy and police brutality. The film also makes the creative choice to portray an ICE agent and a police officer supporting Antonio. Could you talk about Antonio’s relationship with them?
I think it’s a lot more constructive to show the humanity of people and also the three-dimensionality of the characters in the movies rather than relegating them to all good or bad. There’s a lot of gray area, and I have a brother-in-law who’s a cop. I’m also the product of the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings and verdict, and the looting during the LA riots.
So, I see the duality, and it’s not that simple as good or bad. It’s that people are human, and it’s very constructive to show that it’s not that simple. This film is not intended as a piece of propaganda but is a film about people, about human relations, and trying to bring empathy. In my films, I try to show a way where we can all coexist in this country. So I am not trying to alienate anyone. I’m not trying to make someone look bad per se. These were the heavy considerations when designing these characters.
“Blue Bayou” is in theaters from Friday September 17th.