Justin Chon’s Encounters with Racism in Hollywood Led Him to Make Indies Like ‘Blue Bayou’
Justin Chon ’s Southern-set immigration drama “ Blue Bayou ” has the raw feel of a ’70s movie — a freewheeling 16mm camera, intimately scaled, in-your-face human drama a la John Cassevetes — but it’s a film that could likely only be made now. That’s even in spite of the film’s exploration of longstanding, trenchant issues of immigration and deportation in the United States.
Korean-American filmmaker Chon writes and directs himself as Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist and father living in the Louisiana bayou with his wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and her small daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Kathy has another baby on the way. Despite being an adoptee from Korea, Antonio is as American a citizen as anyone, as he’s now lived in the U.S. for 30 years. But after a misunderstanding with police turns brutal, he ends up in jail, and ultimately in the bureaucratic hands of ICE. Suddenly, Antonio finds himself fighting for his right to live here, as a heartless statute of limitations on adopted children states he’s not a naturalized citizen by law, which means he’s up for deportation.
Chon was compelled to make the film after reading countless harrowing stories of Korean adoptees being ripped from the United States. Part of Chon’s decision to set the film in Louisiana — other than budgetary reasons, as he here operated on a bigger canvas than his past LA-set, microbudget directorial efforts “Ms. Purple” and “Gook” — was “to see an Asian face with a Southern accent” and “normalizing that, because we do exist there,” as he explained to IndieWire.
“Another consideration I had was trying to get two Asian ethnicities into one film,” Chon said. “Most of the time, we’re relegated to only being allowed to have one ethnicity. It’s usually just a ‘Korean story’ or ‘Japanese story.’ I always wonder why we never see ourselves interacting with one another in film.”
So Chon turned to the “huge enclave of Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans […] that I haven’t really seen really explored in film too much.” In “Blue Bayou,” Antonio locates a kindred spirit in a Vietnamese woman named Parker (Linh Dan Pham), who’s dying of cancer but emerges as a mother figure throughout Antonio’s many rock-bottom moments.
The film shot on-location in Louisiana at the end of 2019 for a month, before which Chon worked closely with his actors in rehearsal. While Chon may have expected the movie to come out sooner, he said that sitting with the film for a pandemic year-and-a-half, up through its Cannes 2021 July premiere, didn’t change how he shaped the movie in the edit, or make its message resonate any differently.
“This issue of adoptees being deported has been going on since the Clinton administration. So it’s not a new issue. It’s just that nobody knows about it,” he said. “In terms of the whole police brutality aspect of it, that’s also not a new issue. We are in a time where people have camera phones now.”
As a Korean American who grew up in Los Angeles, where his family was looted during the 1992 LA riots, Chon said, “I’m no stranger to the idea of police brutality. That was spurred by the Rodney King beating and the verdict. It was almost like déjà vu when I was seeing the events of 2020. […] It’s just that now it’s harder for people to get away with things like that. It’s the same issues we’ve been dealing with for a long time.”
While the reckoning around race in 2020 didn’t inform the making of “Blue Bayou” precisely, Chon said his own encounters with racism in Hollywood ultimately compelled him to turn to filmmaking. Before making his directorial debut in 2015 with “Man Up,” Chon appeared on television and as Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” film series, so he’d been around the block in terms of mainstream Hollywood projects.
“To be honest, I felt a glass ceiling,” he said of his early days in Hollywood. “I could see my future for the next 10 years of what I was going to be allowed and not allowed to do, where my place was in the industry and the max of that.”
He said that on a “network TV show, I can make good money and be a side character, where I’m doing the tech on a show, or playing a young lawyer. Those are the auditions I was going into and things I was booking.” But becoming a father himself in late 2017 upended the kinds of unfulfilling projects on offer. “I was having a child and I wasn’t satisfied with that.”
Chon recalled a specific incident on a TV show, albeit in nondescript terms, with a director “who has been around for quite some time, [who] was having trouble blocking a scene. I tried to speak up about my suggestion, and he immediately shut me down and asked what I was getting paid to do. I told him, and he said, ‘Exactly, so stay in your place.’ He said [something] not as nice as what I’m saying. It just made me think some people have the privilege and are allowed to take on these responsibilities. But I just don’t understand why they’ve been given the key. So I felt like ‘I can do a good job, or I can do a better job than this guy.'”
In 2016, Chon penned an op-ed for NBC about walking out of a racist audition, where he was asked to affect an Asian accent, or leave. He said he felt like “this is my place, and they expect me to just stay in this place. And there’s not much recourse for that.”
But Chon said there was ultimately a silver lining to his uncomfortable experiences as an actor trying out in Hollywood, where actors of color are still to this day often stereotyped and given peripheral roles.
“Making my own art is quite liberating in that way, where I feel like I have some sort of autonomy. Whether it’s failure or adversity, those are all blessings. They’ve taught me what I value, what’s important to me, and the things I have to fight for,” he said.
“Blue Bayou” is now in theaters from Focus Features.