Justin Chon‘s “Blue Bayou” could be a companion piece to Lee Isaac Chung’s Oscar-winning “Minari.” It’s a grittier and far more downbeat look at a bleak version of the Korean-American immigration experience.
Writer, director and star Chon, who gave us “Gook” and “Ms. Purple,” tells the story of a drawling, motorcycling 30something New Orleans tattoo artist who first came to America via adoption 30 years before. And judging from his present, growing up wasn’t the sunniest of experiences for Antonio LeBlanc.
We meet Antonio, who naturally has to explain “Where’re you from?” twice, in a job interview. He needs extra work and loves working on motorcycles. He’s got his adorable, kindergarten-age stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) with him.
He grew up in St. Francisville, and he came from Korea as a toddler. But all that matters to the unseen interviewer is the two felony convictions on his record.
Antonio’s a bit desperate as he and his wife have another baby on the way. Kathy, played by Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, is a very pregnant physical therapist who says what good wives do, that “things will work out.” But even as a walking ad for his tattoo skills, Antonio won’t be able to drum up enough business to support them.
And the thing that landed him in jail, twice, might be tempting again if cash gets tight.
He’s a doting step-dad, but new enough to it to irk his wife over his constant indulgences of Jessie. She’s always grabbing her favorite foods and sweets at the supermarket, and left on her own, dresses for school like a costume shop is having a fire sale.
“You need to be her parent, not her friend!”
Then there’s Kathy’s ex. Ace is a cop (Mark O’Brien) who walked out on her and little Jessie, and is making noise as only a cop can about his “rights” regarding visitation with a little girl who is both afraid of him and unforgiving. What’s worse, Kathy’s ex has a partner (Emory Cohen) who is even less shy at throwing around his uniformed weight in an effort to intimidate Kathy and Antonio and “help” Ace out.
Antonio may be pals with an ICE agent (Toby Vitrano). But when cops decide to make your immigrant life hell, you can bet “deportation” is included in their bag of threats. They’re going to need a lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall). They’re going to need money for that lawyer.
Chon tells this story in documentary-harsh colors and natural lighting, with the loveliest images dreamy flashbacks to a woman we figure out was Antonio’s mother, in a key moment in his childhood.
He peels away layer’s of Antonio’s past as he adds complications to his present. His mother-in-law (Geraldine Singer) wants nothing to do with him, and when the chips are down, she’s quick to remind Kathy “He’s not American. You’re not responsible for him!”
And then there’s stranger he meets at the hospital where Kathy gets her ultrasound. Parker (Linh Dan Pham) is older and takes an instant interest in Antonio and his little family. She drifts into the story as a woman of mystery, clinging to Antonio for reasons that aren’t all that clear even after they’re supposedly “explained.”
The big contrast is that Antonio has wholly assimilated. We have no notion that he remembers much about Korea or so much as a word or two of Korean. Parker has family, and they embrace Louisiana life even as they cling to vestiges of the country they left.
Chon has wonderful scenes with little Miss Kowalske, answering Jessie’s heartbreaking questions as she’s too little to understand much of what’s going on. She only has her own limited experience of the world to draw on, and to her, Daddies leave or are taken away. Is Mommy next?
Chon shines as the lead, bringing working poor reality to this guy who is facing not just a crisis, but has to re-engineer his limited life to plan for a future.
Vikander is in Oscar winning form, as usual, bringing this earthy, pragmatic and protective mother to life. She doesn’t put much into Kathy’s Big Easy drawl, but navigates the waters between nurturing and fierce protectiveness with such ease she takes your breath away.
And damned if she doesn’t sing the title Roy Orbison song (famously covered by Linda Ronstadt) with conviction, emotion and range that just knocks you out.
“Blue Bayou” sells its subtext with subtle skill for two acts, but Chon shifts to send-a-message mode in an overdrawn third act and downright manipulative finale. There’s a righteous outrage at the heart of the story, but all I have to say is “airport scene” to give away that he overdoes it.
It’s still a winning and quite moving look at the immigrant experience, and how fragile and fraught this past decade’s politics have revealed it to be.
Rating: R for language (profanity) throughout, violence, smoking
Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske, Mark O’Brien,
Linh Dan Pham, Emory Cohen and Vondie-Curtis Hall.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Justin Chon. An eOne movie released by Focus.
Running time: 1:57