‘My heart bled for them’: Director Justin Chon’s ‘Blue Bayou’ aims to change the fate of American adoptees facing deportation

blue bayou justin chon adoptees deportation

In a shotgun home in the Louisiana bayou, a Korean adoptee’s small-town world is rocked when he finds out that in the 30 years he’s lived in America, he is not considered a citizen and is at risk of deportation.

Justin Chon, the writer, director and star behind “Blue Bayou” plays the character Antonio LeBlanc, a financially struggling New Orleans-based tattoo artist who was adopted from South Korea when he was 3. The film peers into the lives of Antonio and his pregnant wife Kathy, played by Alicia Vikander, as parents of Kathy’s young daughter from a previous marriage.

The first scene opens with Antonio in a job interview that feels more like an interrogation as the disembodied voice of a motorcycle shop owner poses a familiar and microaggressive question, “Where are you from?” and then immediately presses with “What did you steal?”

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Antonio is a flawed character and Chon intended for him to be that way. “I wanted to tell a story of a real person, not a perfect individual,” he told Vanity Fair. “This film represents what America feels like and looks like.”

The character sports a small rap sheet of two felonies for stealing motorcycles in his youth. He’s since moved past that and wants to continue living a quiet life with his family, but his story gets muddied after a racist encounter is escalated and immigration services are brought in. The couple are then left to deal with the titanic revelation of his possible deportation to South Korea.

It’s a devastating reality for adoptees brought to the U.S. and who’ve only ever known life in it. 

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Chon spent over five years researching, reading articles and listening to stories from Korean American adoptee friends about the underbelly of a flawed and crushingly rigid adoption and foster care system that stranded thousands of adoptees without many options.

Between loopholes and faulty, incomplete paperwork from their adoptive parents, “these people, now adults, would find out that they were never officially U.S. citizens,” Chon told NextShark.

Specifically for Korean adoptees, the Korean War orphaned and separated around 2 million children from their families. In 1953, Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act, which would enable thousands of Korean adoptees to immigrate to the U.S. under visas. Two years later, it was when evangelical Christians Harry and Bertha Holt adopted eight Korean War orphans, and later facilitated the process for others through the Holt International adoption agency, that more Americans were racing to adopt these displaced children.

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Treated like a hot commodity and like they were in desperate need of “saving,” the number of adoptions from Korea continued to grow until more than 160,000 Korean children were adopted into Western homes in the years following the war and required a lengthy naturalization process, NPR reported.

In 2000, a sliver of hope was given to children from other countries who were under 18. Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act that protected them and gave them automatic citizenship, according to NBC Washington. But this left out the adoptees who were brought over during the ‘70s and ‘80s and had already built established lives at the age of 40 or 50. They would be doomed to starting over and going back to a “motherland” they have nothing but birth ties to.

“I was absolutely appalled,” Chon said. “My heart bled for them and figured that people needed to know.”

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“Listen to him, look at him, he’s American,” Kathy says in an impassioned plea to an immigration lawyer in one of the film’s released clips. Her husband speaks with a Southern drawl, has a large eagle tattoo defiantly emblazoned across his neck and is the father of two children. Yet the threat of a looming deportation to South Korea begs the elusive question: “Who gets to decide who is American?” and “What does it mean to be American?”

Chon wants the viewer to empathize with these characters, with the Asian community who are made to feel like perpetual foreigners despite their birth status and with these adoptees who represent an overlooked part of America. He said the film “represents the idea of who we choose as our families.”

It’s also part of the reason why he got attached to the script, wound up playing Antonio and cast actors who weren’t American. He wanted them to study what it meant to be one, to define it for themselves, and to “make more intentional choices” in their acting, he told Dig IN Magazine. Vikander, who is from Sweden, took extra steps to submerge herself into it—thinking of every detail, down to her hair and the scrubs she wears as a physical therapist in the film.

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(Exclusive clip courtesy of Focus Features)

“As the country continues to grow and evolve I think it’s important to look at ourselves and become more tolerant of one another,” he said. “It’s the reason I placed the film in the South. It’s not a red or blue issue but rather a film that hopefully sparks honest conversations.”

As a filmmaker, he opts to use his creative strengths in storytelling to change this bleak narrative. By empathizing with Antonio’s story, he hopes to bring enough awareness to have it shared and eventually reach the eyes of a legislator, while also serving as a warning to the large number of Asian American adoptees who aren’t aware that they are undocumented.

“If the right people see it, the right people share it, maybe the right person picks it up and there can be some legislation change, and someone who is going through this can stay and someone who has been deported can come back,” he said.

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He also believes that the community needs to take more creative liberties and “branch out of just our own Asian ethnicities and tell each other’s stories respectfully” to build more unity and cohesion.

“I feel like the conversation a lot of the time focuses on Koreans, Japanese and Chinese people. We need to use our platforms for our Southeast Asian counterparts as well. It’s the reason that my next film will focus on Indonesian characters,” Chon said, referring to the one he finished filming with musician Rich Brian a few days ago and features an Indonesian father and son.

His biggest goal for his films is for people to “think about the characters one more time” as they lay in bed—that’s when he considers it a success.

“Blue Bayou” will debut in theaters on Sept. 17.

Featured Image via Focus Features (left, right)

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