Blue Bayou (2021)

Justin Chon | 1hr 52min

The American immigration system of Blue Bayou is a particularly cruel beast. Antonio LeBlanc was adopted from Korea as a three-year-old by Southern parents, and though his life up to this point has been troubled to say the least, he has found a stable home in New Orleans. With the wages of a tattoo artist and a nurse supporting him and the small family he has married into, they just barely scrape by. That he was never officially naturalised as an American citizen when he was a child may not seem like a significant issue, and yet it is within this tiny loophole that US authorities happily stick their fingers and pry open into a gaping pit, within which lies a devastatingly uncertain fate back in a country he barely remembers. Needless to say, this is a crushing story that swings hard for heavy, almost melodramatic emotional beats, and yet Justin Chon grounds it well in a realist style of handheld cameras, 16mm film stock, and symbols of corrupted innocence.

Judging from the very first shot of Blue Bayou, one might expect an entirely different, and dare I say more jaw-droppingly beautiful film. We watch from a distance as a woman rows down a calm river, framed by beautiful pink florals and trees draping down around her, the relevance of which emerges over time as we revisit Antonio’s infanthood in dreamy flashbacks, revealing the painful ties that bind family members together even as time wears on. A swampy bayou that lies just outside the city of New Orleans where he lives in the present day is often the catalyst for these delicate leaps into the past, as the tranquillity of this environment inspires a deep a sense of connection with both his daughter and mother who he barely remembers. It is within these waters that he reaches his lowest point twice over, facing his own inadequacy and mortality, but as we see in an expertly edited sequence that brings the past and present full circle this is also a site of great healing and redemption, where he is inspired by the love of his family to continue his fight for his life and freedom.

Some gorgeous magic hour photography to be found here – the grounding in the Louisiana setting is strong.

The dreaminess of these formal breaks that look into his past are welcome counterpoints to the tone of much of the rest of Blue Bayou, which often sinks into outright despair and anguish at the prospect of a life being destroyed by an inefficiently bureaucratic system. Even if the world around Antonio at times lacks nuance in its construction, Chon’s performance of a man who is slowly losing his grip of it is poignantly complex, especially in those moments he lets his fear and shame override his commitment to openness with his loved ones. While others talk around him about his own fate, the camera hangs on his face, and micro-expressions as small as an eye twitch reveal a slowly disintegrating composure.

Paired with Chon is Alicia Vikander having a particularly good 2021 with confident performances both here and in The Green Knight. As Antonio’s wife, Kathy faces her own dilemma between loyalty and stability, and in one gorgeous scene she holds our attention entirely with a beautiful rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s country ballad ‘Blue Bayou’. This may be a heavy, gut-wrenching ordeal for all these characters, and yet the flashes of beauty which emerge in moments of serenity lend a quiet joy to their relationships, underscoring the significance of family ties that cannot be broken by time, distance, or institutional forces beyond their control.

Blue Bayou is currently out in theatres.

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