As a movie about anti-Asian racism in America, actor Justin Chon’s directoral debut takes a heavy-handed approach that doesn’t do its theme any favors. The bad guys are bureaucrats and employers who clearly see the main character, Antonio (Chon), as representative of an inferior human subset. Chon, who also wrote the screenplay, intensifies this aspect matter by lending Antonio a backstory that essentially gives these bigots an excuse to reject him: Adopted from Korea, raised in a broken home, handicapped by a criminal record, and possessed of no viable education. On top of all that, the only “bankable” skill Antonio has is tattooing, an art that many people have a problem with because of the “kind of people” who get tattoos, especially in the South, where Antonio has lived almost his entire life.
It’s a lot of baggage to carry for a first-time director, and while Chon’s passion for the project is apparent in his portrayal of Antonio, the movie buckles under the load. The crux of the plot is Antonio’s resident status. When he was adopted by an American couple, they neglected to file the proper documentation that would ensure his citizenship, so when he is arrested for ignoring the racist come-ons of a literally stupid cop (Emory Cohen), his case is tagged by ICE, which, since this is during the Trump administration, sets the wheels in motion to have him deported, even though he knows no language other than English and left Korea when he was a toddler and thus has no known relatives there. His only legal hope is his family—wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and step-daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske)—and the child Kathy is expecting. Antonio’s lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall) tries to get the court to see that if he is deported, his children would be left without a father, but given that Antonio is not as gainfully employed as his wife, who’s a nurse and whose ex-husband (a cop) could be tapped for child support, and doesn’t have much in the way of employment prospects, his suit isn’t a very strong one. Chon further stirs the pot by giving Antonio a combative personality that fires up with the slightest spark of resentment. Desperate for money to pay his legal fees, he returns to a life of crime, thus seemingly sealing his fate, or at least as far as these kinds of movies go.
The heavy-handedness seems hardly necessary given the movie’s subtheme of Antonio being not only stateless, but drifting in a world that won’t have him because our existence is so dependent on labels that precede us. He introduces an older woman, Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a refugee from Vietnam, who tries to introduce him to his Asian heritage, even if Vietnam isn’t Korea. Though at base there’s something rather trite about this subplot, it works to highlight Antonio’s isolation from his birthright, which should be American by default but can’t be due to the nativist sensibility that still finds non-whites unacceptable as real Americans. When Antonio attends a party thrown by Parker’s family, he feels for the first time a sense of belonging, even if he doesn’t fully understand it. Even Kathy gets into the spirit by singing the title song, which connects their New Orleans home to the larger world represented by Parker and her monolingual father.
Had Blue Bayou been formulated simply as an issue movie, or a more intimate study of a man without a country, it would have probably conveyed Chon’s ideas more readily, but its reliance on melodramatic plot devices that detract from the credibility of its message makes it a chore to sit through.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).
Blue Bayou home page in Japanese
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