To New Orleans family man Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon) and everyone close to him, he’s as American as the tattooed eagle spreading its wings defiantly across his throat, down to his lived-in Southern drawl acquired over more than three decades. To ICE authorities, however, he’s nothing more than a Korean immigrant with a criminal record and faulty paperwork, and they want him out.
Never mind that he has scarcely any memories of his motherland, having been brought out to the U.S. for adoption at the age of three, or that his all-American wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) is carrying their second child: The system is the system, and its rules and loopholes exist to punish more than they protect. “Blue Bayou” holds little back as it rails against the cruelties and hypocrisies of American immigration law to stirring effect — though this emotional pile-driver of a film could stand to trust more in the undeniable power of its core story.
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Instead, writer-director-star Chon lays it on thick in all respects, from the numerous secondary plot strands needlessly crowding and complicating his earnest screenplay to the swollen, amplified score that double-underlines every devastating plot point. Closer in tenor to his mannered third feature “Ms. Purple” than his more tersely angry Sundance-winning breakout “Gook,” Chon’s overwrought filmmaking stands in stark contrast to the bone-weary believability and restraint of his own lead performance. Empathic support from Alicia Vikander as his increasingly frayed spouse bolsters the commercial indie appeal of this topical tear-jerker, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes to a loudly approving audience reception.
At the film’s outset, it’s clear Antonio has turned his life around from rough beginnings. Having spent his childhood passed from one adoptive and foster family to another, and endured a stint in prison for motorcycle theft, he has finally found emotional stability in the home he shares with Kathy and Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), her daughter from a previous relationship, who regards him adoringly as her true dad. His job as a freelance tattoo artist isn’t bringing in enough money, however, least of all with a baby on the way, and his criminal record keeps him from the bike mechanic work he seeks. In an effective, sustained introductory shot, we watch Antonio’s face struggle to remain neutral during a disastrous job interview, as the unseen questioner sneers at his background and repeatedly, offensively queries the supposed disconnect between his Western name and Eastern features.
It’s a scene built on the typical micro- and macro-aggressions that Antonio experiences on a routine basis: As in “Gook,” Chon is out to highlight the casual everyday prejudice that is endemic to the Asian-American experience. “Blue Bayou” is best when it raises these issues through organic observation rather than schematically engineered conflict — much of it centered on Kathy’s policeman ex Ace (Mark O’Brien), who resents Antonio’s role in Jessie’s life, and his racist meathead partner Denny (way overplayed by Emory Cohen). As if to suggest that not all authority figures are the enemy, one of Antonio’s closest pals is, somewhat implausibly, a white ICE agent: “Blue Bayou” is heavy on supporting characters who play like talking script notes.
When a public skirmish with Ace spirals out of control, Antonio’s subsequent arrest puts him on the immigration authorities’ radar. Though he has spent all but the first three years of life in the U.S., his adoptive parents never made his citizenship official, meaning he suddenly faces deportation to Korea. His lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is sympathetic but not hugely encouraging, given Antonio’s track record; his one (long) shot at turning around the verdict is to prove himself a “valued member of society.” The cruelty of a value assessment in which being a loving husband and father counts for nothing is declared throughout.
This is fine material for an urgent, politically punchy legal drama, but Chon isn’t done, as the narrative further lashes out in various directions: a flare-up of Antonio’s criminal activity, a pained search for his estranged foster mom, and a dreamy trail of flashbacks piecing together why he left Korea in the first place. All but disconnected from the rest of proceedings is a maudlin subplot detailing his bond with Parker (Lin-Dan Pham), a kindly, Vietnamese-born woman stoically facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, which serves principally to vocalize facets of their shared Asian-American identity that are already implicit in the script. She asks him for a tattoo of a waterlily, her favorite flower, because “they look like they have no roots, but they do, they cannot survive without them.”
Subtlety, you might have guessed, is not an operative word here, down to the humidly saturated reds and blues of Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng’s gritty-glossy lensing. Toward the film’s close, in particular, scenes that are already moving are shrilly escalated in volume — the sob-disrupted dialogue and background strings competing for our eardrums — to a degree that would border on kitsch if the human stakes weren’t so real and clear and raw, and if Chon’s wounded, intelligent performance weren’t significantly more disciplined than his direction.
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