Blue Bayou: Won’t Ever Drown, by David Bax
Justin Chon made his name as a director with 2017’s deceptively lean, semi-autobiographical Gook, a film that set itself apart from the indie pack with indelible images in searing black and white. Chon’s new film, Blue Bayou, in which he once again pulls triple duty as writer, director and star, is decidedly in color. Smears of warm and cool hues are in keeping with the movie’s setting of New Orleans (I think it might be mostly the Algiers Point neighborhood but we do get a glimpse of Canal Street), a place where interior decorating trends often eschew “pops” of color in favor of just painting the whole damn wall purple or whatever. The light and weather of the region are keen to play along, swirling with stormy yellows and greens. But, more than just bringing the location to life, the color speaks to how Chon’s character, Antonio, differs from Gook‘s Eli. Eli’s frustration comes from a lack of opportunity and the resulting stasis drains his world of color. Antonio, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy to stay just where he is, with his girlfriend, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and her daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), whom he helps to raise. But inhumanly unfair circumstances won’t let him.
Thus the vibrant color of the place takes on a nearly tangible weight. Chon’s images, abetted by cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang, are imbued with so much longing that they’re positively heavy with it. We see these side roads and tattoo parlors through the eyes of Antonio, adopted from South Korea as an infant and now facing deportation due to improper paperwork. These may be his last glimpses of the place he’s called home for most of his life and the nostalgia is already seeping into the present day, like a watercolor painting dropped into a puddle, slowly blurring into itself.
If that sounds overly sentimental, be forewarned that Chon has no interest in avoiding melodrama. Though the film’s narrative is “ripped from the headlines”–it even ends with onscreen text advocating for the cause of unjustly deported adoptees–it’s not another self-consciously vérité film, angling to seem more important by virtue of being unadorned. Blue Bayou is full of huge moments, sweaty exertions, violence both heroic and damning… When Antonio runs across a room toward a crying Jessie, swooping her up in his arms, the more jaded and cynical viewers might roll their eyes at this idealized, movie-of-the-week surrogate father. But Chon is not being disingenuous or calculating. These big swings come from a place of honesty and love for his characters.
Easily the best of these sublime instances that exist both within and above the rest of the film is the scene in which Kathy, goaded into backyard karaoke at a stranger’s house, sings the Roy Orbison song of the movie’s title. Vikander sings beautifully but also unassumingly, underscoring that, for all of the beauty of this single point in time, it’s fleeting, not cathartic.
There’s a hint to be found in that, a clue that, for however often it skirts the edge of hokeyness, Blue Bayou is committedly realistic about Antonio’s situation. Yet, in spite of that despair at an uncaring system of the world, Chon still insists on love and kindness, asserting that following a moral true north is the only way to get to where you need to be.