“Blue Bayou” is a beautiful film that confronts a cruel reality

Director Justin Chon provides a timely message about institutional racism

A mixed race couple with their young daughter. The family stare into a mirror, smiling.
The cast delivers on an emotionally impactful story. Image courtesy of Entertainment One Ltd.

By: Sara Brinkac, Peak Associate

Selected by the Cannes Film Festival and premiering September 17, Blue Bayou is the fourth feature film from director, writer, and star Justin Chon. In a recent interview with Kodak, Chon said, “The experience was pure. Everybody involved [was] in it for the right reasons and wanted to make a beautiful film.” That sentiment is abundantly apparent when watching this film. 

Blue Bayou tells the story of Antonio LeBlanc (Chon), a Korean adoptee who has lived in Louisiana since the age of three. However, due to neglect from his adopted parents and cruelly opportunistic law officials, LeBlanc faces deportation to Korea. Throughout the film, LeBlanc deals with constant financial stress, on top of caring for his pregnant wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and stepchild, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). The audience also learns he has a haunting past he must come to terms with. 

Chon based Blue Bayou on the unrepresented stories and realities that exist for American adoptees today. The truth that many adopted people have fallen victim to racist American policies that prey on loopholes in the legal system is a necessary and timely message. However, to the film’s disservice, Chon dresses this emotional story with heavy handed sentimentality. 

The film is scattered with scenes of forced connection between Antonio and Jessie, and conflict between Kathy and Jessie’s biological father, which is only exacerbated by the uninspired dialogue. The viewer is constantly removed from the story because they become aware of the film forcing an emotional hand. When characters act the way they do for no viable reason except to drive the story forward, the film loses its impact.

That being said, the film is not a complete write off. Blue Bayou still handles the core of its social commentary with care. It uses our knowledge about societal injustice and adds to the conversation about racial inequality rather than regurgitating familiar information. This creates a lessened, but still emotional, ending that leaves the viewer thinking about the society they’re living in. 

Although the subject matter seems to overshadow most reviews of this film, I believe its cinematic atmosphere is hugely admirable. Chon worked with cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang to create a beautiful visual landscape. By shooting on film (rather than digitally) they were able to create a textured picture with grain and damage to the film strip. This made the picture — and bayou particularly — both visceral and tangible to the audience. The colours and light captured on the film strip created the perfect warm, southern Louisiana atmosphere. Blue Bayou is a fantastic reminder of how powerful shooting on film can be.  

Although Blue Bayou has its faults, it still remains a timely and poignant film from an underrepresented community. What Justin Chon has achieved is no small feat and should be treated with respect. With a growing trend toward home viewing, Blue Bayou is a film that deserves to be watched in theatres. Its use of surround sound to compliment the haunting score, and the ability to see the beautiful texture of the film on the big screen, adds an irreplaceable and unforgettable impact to the story.