Bayou blue It moved me a lot more than I expected or maybe even wanted. Scene by scene, this story of a Korean American adoptee threatened with deportation is often brutal and overworked. There were times I was sure I hated him – only to bring me back. In the end, I found myself wiping furious tears, a little angry maybe with the filmmakers for their hammer tactics, but a lot more angry at the injustice of what they’re showing us: a system of d immigration that can tear families apart.
Family separation by government agencies like ICE has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, but Bayou blue tells a different story of immigration. It was written and directed by Justin Chon, who also plays Antonio, a tattoo artist from New Orleans. Antonio is married to a nurse named Kathy, played by Alicia Vikander, and he is also a beloved stepfather to his 7-year-old daughter, Jessie. He and Kathy are also expecting a child. But their domestic bliss is derailed one day when they enter into a heated argument with Jessie’s biological father, Ace, who abandoned Kathy and Jessie years ago but now wants to see his daughter. Ace happens to be a cop with a racist partner who is on the scene. Tensions escalate and in the ensuing brawl, Antonio is arrested.
Rather than being released after a few hours in jail, Antonio is handed over to ICE, who begins digging into his background. It turns out that when Antonio was adopted in the 1980s, his US citizenship was never formalized. A judge orders his deportation to Korea. His criminal record, which includes two counts of motorcycle theft, does not help Antonio’s case.
This is not the first time that Chon has made a film that brings the struggles of Korean Americans to the fore. His previous efforts include black and white drama Gook, named after the anti-Asian insult and set during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. He followed this film with Mrs. Violet, about two distant siblings in LA’s Koreatown.
Besides its setting in Louisiana, Bayou blue Looks a lot like those previous films with its jagged pocket camera and emotionally raw performances. Rarely have I seen Vikander so energetic and immediate; it is his strongest work in years. And Chon effortlessly slips into the role of a guy who had a tough upbringing – his adoptive father treated him horribly – and is now on the verge of losing the people he loves.
While Chon’s acting is great, his writing might take a bit more discipline. There is a moving but awkward subplot starring the wonderful Linh-Dan Pham as Parker, an American woman of Vietnamese descent who befriends Antonio. As their scenes together deepen the film’s understanding of the experiences of Asian immigrants, Parker gets too many symbolic monologues, and his diagnosis of terminal cancer feels like a stab too far. That’s not the only trick of the storyline: Antonio has a friend who happens to be an ICE agent and tries to help him.
Or Bayou blue undeniably succeeds in portraying the strength and fragility of families in situations where the decks of cards are stacked against them. As I sometimes recoiled from the relentless misery of Antonio’s experience as he faced setbacks after setbacks, in the end, I appreciated the film’s refusal to slow his journey down. There is a core of emotional honesty to this film that survives even its most manipulative impulses. It leaves you with a devastating feeling of how violent it is to tear someone away from the only family – and the only country – he has ever known.