Written by Patrick Hao
Sometimes there is a movie that is so embarrassing, you cannot understand how anyone could take it seriously. Blue Bayou is such a movie. By all reports, critical reviews have been receptive to the film tackling the issue of citizenship status of international adoptees brought to the United States before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The film received thunderous applause with some pushback from adoptee advocacy groups over the film’s exploitation of these issues. But, for me Blue Bayou is the nadir of handsomely made art films that thinks it has a lot to say but has nothing to say at all.
At the crux of Blue Bayou is a story of Antonio (played by Justin Chon who also wrote and directed), a tattoo artist who was adopted from Korea when he was three years old in New Orleans. His adoption did not necessarily go well as his abusive adopted father led him to being estranged from his new family in America and towards a felonious life stealing motorcycles. Now older, and more mature, Antonio finds it hard to get a well-paying job to support his pregnant wife Kathy (a game Alicia Vikander) and his stepdaughter Jessie (the too cute for her own good Sydney Kowalske).
Problems start boiling over when the buffoonish Jessie’s biological father Ace (Mark O’Brien) and his even more buffoonish partner (Emory Cohen) begin harassing Antonio. Antonio retaliates thus leading to his arrest. During this process, it is discovered that his adopted parents never filed the paperwork for him to gain his citizenship, leading to removal proceedings by ICE – a real problem that is affecting many adopted international adoptees. His solutions are minimal.
All of this makes for great fodder to chew on. There is intergenerational angst, immigration issues, the pitfalls of bureaucratic government, police brutality, and the meaning of being American. The results, however, are a product of a really insecure filmmaker with something to prove. Justin Chon, whose previous directorial efforts include the interesting works in Gook and Ms. Purple, feels very lost in the material. He knows this is an important story, but it becomes clear that he was not the one to tell it.
Everything from the writing to Chon’s performance to the filmic style is affected in a way that screams, “pay attention to me.” The film is shot in 16mm with no real purpose other than a way to flex his cinematic bonafides. After the third magic hour montage, it starts losing any real meaning. Chon puts on a thick Cajun accent, which could be powerful in highlighting the disassociation viewers have on Asian Americans, but his performance borders upon “Maine Justice ” levels of big.
The most offensive of all is how all the capital “I” issues have the subtlety of an alligator in a clothing store. From the opening moments when Antonio is asked “Where are you from?” to the last 30-minutes which features a level of coincidences and sudden character shifts, it felt like Chon had no respect for his audience. Rather, he presents these ideas and issues that are so superficial. This is the type of movie in which characters speak in New York Times op-eds.
The one saving grace is the performance from Linh Dan Pham as Parker. She is a Vietnamese refugee who befriends Antonio as she battles through cancer. While she infuses Parker with interiority that the other characters seem to lack, she too is reduced as a “Manic Pixie Mother Figure.” She waxes poetic about identity, comparing them to the rootless flowers of the Louisiana state flower fleur de lis. Her final moment in the film is guffaw worthy.
Ultimately, Blue Bayou suffers from fetishization of suffering – or as I like to call it “oppression porn.” There is a sense that for a movie to be “Important,” suffering needs to be in the forefront. In reality, it feels like a desperate plea for clout, to appeal to bleeding hearts. With all this talk about Asian American representation in the media, maybe it is great to have a film like Blue Bayou. It is so beautifully misguided in its good intentions that it forgot how to be a movie. Asian Americans need their Crash just as much as they need Shang-Chi.
Blue Bayou Trailer
Blue Bayou is currently screening in theatrical wide release.