Antonio (Justin Chon) is a Korean-American living in Louisiana with his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander). Suddenly, he is threatened with deportation to a country he barely remembers, exposing a cruel loophole in the immigration system, tearing his young family apart and forcing him to face his heartbreaking past.
Justin Chon, writer, director, producer and star of Blue bayou, perhaps best known for his role in the dusk films, but since its debut hailed by Sundance Gook in 2017, he made films combining melodrama, social commentary and discreet aestheticism. So it is with this heartbreaking story, set in New Orleans, of a Korean-American facing an unexpected deportation.
The laudatory goal of the film is to shed light on the precariousness of immigrant children adopted in the United States. Chon and Alicia Vikander, in the role of Antonio and his pregnant wife Kathy, perform beautifully slightly marred by a touch of histrionic (him) and a cross-border accent (her). There is a hint of magical realism in the enigmatic flashbacks; 16mm cinematography with raw, succulent edges; a clever child performance by Sydney Kowalske as Antonio’s stepdaughter; and a welcome cameo from Vondie Curtis-Hall as the family’s immigration lawyer.
Sadly, much of this good work is drowned out by over-explained symbolism and lazy resort to glowing sunsets over the Mississippi River that coat the movie’s bitter pill in jam. There are also script issues. Antonio is beset by cartoon villains: his implicitly fanatic, pursed-lip stepmom (Geraldine Singer) and a pig-ignorant cop (Emory Cohen) as spectacularly thick as he is malicious.
It is an often captivating film, which raises important questions.
Most disappointing is that the wonderful actor Linh Dan Pham plays a Vietnamese-American foreigner who seems to intermittently offer comfort to Antonio despite his own struggles: a maniacal Pixie Dream immigrant, if there is one. Antonio, on the other hand, is complex enough to believe it: a motorcycle freak who gives his little daughter-in-law a tattoo gun to play with. It’s a hint of additional criminality in his past that will come back to haunt him.
Grimly, the sorrows multiply until the finale removes all possible stops to wring the salt water out of the public eye. At that point, you might care a little less about it. Too bad, because it is an often captivating film, which raises important questions. One is: can a movie change minds as well as break hearts?
Multi-hyphenated, Justin Chon has crafted an awe-inspiring melodrama, rich in Louisiana vibe and with a timely message, but Blue Bayou is marred by its addiction to symbolism and sentiment.